I spent Thanksgiving Day in the dementia care community where I work. Throughout the day, I got reminders about what matters in life, and what doesn’t. Take a guess, then read on.
Few of us pause to appreciate the beauty of our human mind. Not until we are brought face to face with the reality of a mind stripped of some of its essential functions, do we become grateful for what we have “up there.” The ability to comprehend and make sense of things, to speak and be understood, to make decisions, to have sound judgment, to move, to have emotions, to control them, to remember what just happened, to orient ourselves visually and spatially. So many things we owe to the healthy mind! Every day, I marvel at my mind’s ability to function so well. And I also ready myself for the eventuality of it failing some day. Not getting attached, even to the mind itself, that which makes mindfulness possible.
The body that once felt eternal, has a way of betraying the very old and the ones with dementia. One by one, systems start failing. Vision, hearing are usually first. Then the legs give way, and a series of assistive devices take over. The cane, then the walker, then the wheelchair, then the reclining chair when even sitting becomes too hard. Pretty soon, it is the arms’ and hands’ turn to go limp. Bodily functions follow, that can no longer be controlled. And close to the end, even swallowing becomes a challenge. Then heart and breath. The body, just like the mind, is a wonderfully engineered machine, programmed from the start for obsolescence. While it works, we tend to treat it with nonchalance. Seeing what happens eventually serves as a powerful reminder to appreciate this body while it is still working, and to also not cling to it too much. It cannot be trusted, just like the mind.
Lawyer, judge, inventor, entrepreneur, surgeon, artist, psychologist, writer — they made a mark in society, and had the good fortune of having success, lots of it. Now, there is hardly a trace left of their previous life, apart from fading pictures of past glorious moments, and here and there respectful references to “doctor this,” or “Doctor that.” Time and the inability to hang on to memories have a way of erasing what once seemed so important. The world moves on, and the young take over. Seeing this process can help us not fall into the trappings of success and conversely, failure. No need to get too excited one way or the other.
It does not matter how much money we make or have. Eventually, we all end up without the ability to enjoy or miss those things we used to cling to. This is not to say we should not plan for the future and make sure we have a comfortable home. It just means we will eventually have to let go of all our “things.” Those material possessions are not what matters in the end. Very few of the people I spend time with, talk about what they used to own. And the ones who do, all do let go in the later stages of their illness. My mother was one of those people.
Nothing’s for sure, including those close relationships we take for granted. Loved ones upon whom we may have counted for comfort in our old days, those people may die on us or have a change of heart. The old man who believes that his daughter has died is not far from the truth. His daughter is still very much alive, but she has not visited or called in years. And the woman who thought her husband would be there for her is now a widow, wondering where her beloved has gone. Relationships with those we love and who love us are to be treasured. And we need to expand our circle of love to not just our family and friends, but also anyone with whom we can have a meaningful connection, even if for only a moment.
This thing we call “I” is not worth getting so preoccupied with. If we live long enough, that, too, will be chipped away, until we no longer have a sense of identity. The glue that kept our story going will have dried up, and now there will only be a vague sense of existence, and remnants from past habits, that’s all. Yet, most of us spend so much of our lives thinking, acting based on this concept of “I,” “me” and “you.” We worry so much about what happened to “I” in the past, and what is going to happen to “I” in the future. Our carefully constructed identity is indeed just a story with a beginning, middle and end. For many of us, that story will end way before our final years, and in its place will be a void waiting to be filled with new meaning, new ways of occupying ourselves, right there, right now.
What life lesson(s) if any have you learned from being around persons with dementia?