I had the most phenomenal experience this past week. I met an alien species: an 83-year old with a memory and the capacity to travel the world alone. As if that isn’t shocking enough, she even used an iPad and could work the TV remote!
I know, I know…I’m stunned and amazed, too. Who are these people? I’m so immersed in the dementia world, I forget such humans exist. Or are they human at all? (Cue creepy Sci-Fi sound effects).
Dementia is so prevalent, sometimes I think anyone past a certain age who doesn’t have it is a foreign species. I found myself studying this woman like a scientist: can operate computers, able to properly identify utensils and dress herself, drives unaided, understands WiFi, can be left alone for indeterminate intervals, able to order off a menu.
Of course, I do know others this age who are equally as capable. But this was a friend’s mother who I spent the better part of a week with, so I had plenty of time to compare and contrast.
The good news is, I found it healing to be around a dementia-less mom. It was great to walk the beach with her and talk, listen to her initiate conversations with perfect strangers, or watch her read a novel. We discussed world travel, dogs, family woes and food. She helped clean the kitchen. She complained right along with me about TV commercials. It was nothing short of miraculous.
In the past, however, my emotions most likely would’ve fluctuated between anger, envy and resentment. Shortly after Mom’s diagnosis, I remember going to a coffee shop and seeing a group of people her age playing cards. While I waited on my coffee, I listened to them add up their scores, compliment each other on strategy, and make plans for their next game.
I left there livid. Why did they get to enjoy life while my Mom had to endure slow mental deterioration? Why couldn’t she get with friends like she used to? And screw them for being able to count; my intelligent mother could no longer do simple arithmetic.
I was stuck in the it’s not fair stage. Well it isn’t fair, but being angry and bitter about it does me no good. It doesn’t help Mom’s dementia one bit, and it sure doesn’t make me a better caregiver. It just makes me miserable.
I still have moments when I fixate on the poor me syndrome. I pass people in the airport with their active and healthy moms, and I wish I was traveling with my Mom. I see women out shopping with their moms, and I want so badly to do that.
Wait, Mom hated shopping. Scratch that. But I’d like to do something with Mom that does NOT involve dementia, like even just listening to her complain about shopping.
From time to time, I still get morose and absolutely furious about dementia. Who wouldn’t? It sucks beyond belief to lose someone you love bit by bit to this disease.
But when I feel myself getting stuck in that place, I try hard to work my way out. One sure way to free yourself is through gratitude.
I can just hear you now: oh screw you and your gratitude!
I’m not giving you platitudes, or telling you you shouldn’t feel your anger, your hurt, your desperation or your debilitating sadness. You should. You have to.
Feel every emotion: rage, cry, sit and stare at the sky until it goes from light to dark. But when those feelings take over your life, when they consume you and you no longer wish to be consumed, gratitude is one way to start pecking out of the shell.
Here’s how that works for me. I hate that my Mom has dementia, but I’m so grateful she’s still alive. I can still hold her hand. I can still have a meal with her. I can still hear her say “I love you,” and when she can’t say it, I can still see it in her eyes. I can still laugh with her.
When I’m having trouble getting even that much clarity, I look for other things to be grateful for. I start really small: my coffee is hot, my roots are done, my cat’s being nice to me.
Can’t think of a single thing to be grateful for? Try reading Tiny Buddha’s “60 Things To Be Grateful For In Life.” Out of that list, you’re bound to find something that fits.
If I spend too much time focusing on all the pain associated with Mom’s dementia, I’ll never make it. I did that for a few years, and I don’t wish that hell on anyone. So instead I try and find the gifts: those lucid, loving, funny moments that keep me going another day.
It was amazing to spend time with my friend’s mom, even though at times it was as foreign to me as an alien visitation. So many times during her visit, I realized how far I’d come in the years since Mom’s diagnosis. I was relieved to feel more joy than sadness, more lightness than darkness, and more peace than pain.
Maybe you’re nowhere near that stage; that’s ok. I’m here to offer you hope that it’s possible. Keep talking. Keep helping others. Keep practicing gratitude.
We’re in this together.