A reader asked (in Dutch):
As a social worker in a nursing home I had a conversation last week with the wife of a gentleman living on our psych-ward. This lady appeared not to need the most common forms of support in dealing with the loss of her husband through dementia. She didn’t need information from Alzheimer groups or the like.
I had a very special conversation with her in which she told me that she wanted to know what the lesson was she needed to learn from this situation. This meeting set me moving as well. So, I searched online and came upon your site. You mention your grandmother and an outing, beyond that it doesn’t seem relevant, but perhaps you’ve investigated the look at this issue from the perspective of theosophy or antroposophy? I’m conscious of the various sides of the issue, on the one hand the suffering of both partners, each from their own perspective and life work. On the other hand my own curiosity in a non-clinical look from various perspectives that might offer support and lead to a more meaningful approach to the drama that’s called Alzheimer’s.
As far as I know there isn’t much in the theosophical literature about dementia or Alzheimer’s. My personal approach is pretty medical. The brain dies, so that ‘higher mental functions’ disappear first. That is: abstract thought gets harder, talking becomes a problem in a later stage and of course best known: memory loss.
I notice in my grandmother that the emotional stays strong a lot longer. I think it’s on account of this that some people report that they get a second chance at a meaningful relationship with their parent in those last years. The thinking mind is less in the way so that it becomes clearer what the underlying emotion is. In my grandmother for instance – it’s a bit sad for family closer by, but she talks most about those two sons she quarreled with most over the past 50 years.
I think it is probably pretty universal: those who have an ambivalent relationship with a parent will be likely to stay away when Alzheimer’s manifests. However, there’s a chance that the disease creates an opportunity to make up. On the one hand it’s no longer the same person you’re facing. If you go without wanting to, perhaps you’d better not go because they’ll feel that emotion of yours without a doubt.
In my grandmother it’s clear that words become less and less important. The tone of voice, a touch, holding her hand, music – that registers. Don’t expect a conversation on something meaningful anymore.
This is true to the point that with her best friend in the nursing home my grandmother chats away. However, if you listen to the words both ladies say, they’re not making any sense, nor is what they’re saying related to what the other person is saying. However, they’re having a blast. I guess that’s because body language, tone and all that is just what it ought to be when talking to a friend.
I’m not sure what any of that has to do with spirituality. I did however use my relationship with my grandmother as an example during a lecture recently about the Buddhist concept of ’emptiness’. In order to be able to deal with the changes a person goes through in Alzheimer’s, you have to not be stuck in the way they were 10 years ago. You have to be with them as they are at that moment. I care enough about how she was 5 years ago to be sad when I go home after a visit, but I can also enjoy the beautiful moments now.
As for any spiritual lessons to be learned here, I guess they follow from the above:
- Learning patience for someone with declining mental abilities
- Living in the now, instead of with the image you had of someone
- Being aware of how you respond emotionally, so you live more from your center
- – and if you’re lucky you can heal some of the wounds in the relationship