Oh the mess! Babies sit in their highchairs waiting for something to fill their tummies. Their hands flail about, knocking spoons out of hands and sloshing food everywhere. They aren’t just eating. They’re exploring. Colors, textures, tastes, shapes. Every meal is an adventure. And a mess to clean up.
We smile when we see this. We take pictures and even give them a smash cake on their birthday, laughing at all the crevices they smear the frosting into. We may tire of the mess to clean up, but we know this is just a season. It’s temporary. Soon they’ll be able to master a spoon and feed themselves. We teach them independence and as their motor skills grow, the mess dissipates.
This is part of growing up. There is nothing sad about this because they are learning to be independent. They’re on the path to adulthood. And so it goes.
When a person has an accident and finds themselves in a body cast, this is a royal pain in the rear. They need someone to help feed them, clothe them, bathe them and go to the restroom. It’s an inconvenience. And humbling. They realize just how blessed they are to be independent and they no longer take it for granted.
This is part of recovery. We empathize with them, but we know this is just a season and soon they’ll have full use of their arms and legs and return to an independent life.
When a person develops Alzheimer’s, their brain begins to die. Over time, they lose their fine motor skills and eventually need someone to feed them, clothe them, bathe them and go to the restroom. It isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s frustrating. They’ve used a fork for 70 years, but now they have no idea how to hold one. They’ve filled spoons with food for decades, but now the food spills before they can bring it to their mouths.
Eventually, they can no longer follow simple instructions and their frustration grows. They feel that they should know what to do with a toothbrush, a comb, a shirt. But when they draw a blank, they get scared. Sometimes they lash out and get combative. Other times they get depressed and become withdrawn.
This is part of dementia. And it is extremely sad because they’re losing their independence. Forever.
We can feed a baby and even step in to help a friend in a body cast, because we know this is temporary and they’re on the path to independence. But when it comes to a person with Alzheimer’s, we unknowingly draw a line sometimes and retreat. We’re overcome with sadness, even grief at the loss this person experiences on a daily basis, and we know that loss will only increase until they ultimately lose their life. And this is where many people get stuck.
Is it because we prize independence and subconsciously look down upon people whose bodies begin to fail them? Do we gauge their worth and without even realizing it, decide they’re no longer valuable because of their inability to care for themselves?
Or is it the grief we can’t handle? We don’t like being sad. We want to be happy. We don’t want to pay attention to someone with dementia because it depresses us and hurts too much. We don’t mean them any harm, we just can’t go there. So we stay away. We keep a safe distance and don’t engage.
What we don’t realize is that our avoidance of people with dementia is like pouring salt on an already festering wound. We don’t want to hurt them, but in addition to the confusion, frustration, anger and depression they already feel, we add on rejection and abandonment.
It’s ok to be sad. In fact, something is wrong if dementia doesn’t make us sad. But what we need to understand is that we can move beyond sadness and experience positive emotions. When I watch my Father clap his hands and hear him sing, it fills my heart with joy. When he smiles or laughs, it makes me happy. And when he thanks me for taking care of him, it makes me grateful and touches a place so deep inside me that I want to freeze those moments forever.
There is so much we miss out on when we don’t engage with people who have dementia. We can easily look past the mess when it comes to babies, just as we can look past the body cast of an injured friend. It’s time we did the same for people with dementia. It’s time we look past Alzheimer’s and see these people for the brave souls that they are.