Dementia as My Teacher
I am a huge advocate of self-observation and monitoring of one’s own behavior. I aim to constantly practice noticing how I am personally behaving. I aim to maintain awareness and choice over my words, thoughts and actions. I notice that when I am out of line, my ability to self-adjust is hugely impaired by not enough sleep, illness, too much sugar, stress, alcohol, or hunger. My abilities are also challenged by dementia. In this case, my dad’s, not my own.
Dementia teaches me acceptance by putting my impatience right in my face. In my work, I teach people that both patience and impatience only exist in the presence of annoyance. Patience is only a slightly better behaved version of impatience. I explain that the only way out of the patience and impatience trap is to practice acceptance of what is (rather than resistance to it) and then, figure out what to do about the situation.
So there I find myself, resisting that my dad has just asked me the same question for the thousandth time, or called me by my sister’s name for the millionth time. My annoyance rises; my resistance rears its ugly head. My ego is in charge and I feel frustrated and judgmental. Then my own teachings dance around my head tauntingly. I take a deep breath. I practice acceptance rather than resistance. I smile and lovingly answer to the wrong name and change my answer to the question slightly hoping this one will stick.
Oddly, I thank God that Dad can’t remember how impatient I was last time he asked me the question. His dementia gives me an opportunity to perfect my self-mastery. I am offered a new, moment-to-moment opportunity to get my response right. Perhaps all of our relationships would benefit from both the ability to be more careful and the ability to quickly forget when someone else wasn’t.
Dementia is teaching me clarity and the importance of only saying what matters. When my dad asks me in absolute confusion, what I am talking about, I realize how much I say that doesn’t matter at all and isn’t even worth explaining. Dementia is teaching me conservation of words, and the importance of only speaking when it matters. Dementia has also reminded me that not all things other people say out loud need to be explained, nor understood. Many relationships would be served from being mindful not to spew our words unceasingly and from not expecting or demanding an explanation of every comment.
Dementia is teaching me that the story is not the truth. This is a huge one. Most of us get caught up in the story of not being loved, or not mattering to someone else due to little things they do, or don’t do. So, when someone we love with all of our heart cannot remember who we are, or that we are someone that they love, it is fertile ground for growing the belief that we don’t matter, that we aren’t loved or some other story of victimhood that is, quite frankly, not true. Dementia offers the opportunity to practice observing my story and making the conscious choice not to take my dad’s memory (or lack thereof) personally. This is my moment to ask, “Is this belief that my dad doesn’t love just because he doesn’t remember, really true?” and I always know it is not. He may not remember that he loves me with his brain but he does remember with his heart. Even if he doesn’t, I do. I know. I remember.
How powerful would it be to not take it personally when our loved ones forget a birthday or anniversary, or even a date or to call. What if we just chose not to take it personally, not to assign the situation meaning that it does not actually mean?
Dementia teaches me to be present. There is no past when you don’t remember it, and there is no future either. There is only right now, now, now, now.
Dementia teaches me to be grateful for the ability to hold a conversation, read a book and comprehend the meaning, write, watch a movie, know what I am doing, when and why. I’m grateful for that my dad has always been my teacher, even now, when I am reteaching him the very things that he taught me.
Dementia causes me to evaluate who we are without our memories. So, what is it that makes us matter, makes us loveable, if it isn’t what we are able to do, what we are able to say or what we are able to remember? Dementia is teaching me Namaste—the Divine in me honors the Divine in you. What if we loved another simply because of their heart and soul instead of their words, thoughts, actions and past and future? Dementia is teaching me to love the deepest part of another.