Last year I took the time to re-read one of our modern day classics, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It was published in 1960 and won a Pulitzer Prize. There is a passage from the novel that continues to linger in my mind. It’s when Atticus Finch imparts this piece of wisdom to his daughter Scout: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Another great American author and poet, Henry David Thoreau, puts it this way in Walden: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
I’ve reflected upon these passages for quite a while. As a caregiver, is it really possible to climb into another’s skin and imagine what it’s like to be them? Can we really experience their world from their perspective? How might it change the way we manage from day to day if we could?
To me, these two quotes cited above refer to the qualities of compassion and empathy. Compassion is that human emotion in us that is prompted by the pain of others, and one that gives rise to our desire to alleviate another’s suffering. Empathy is a learned skill that takes practice. Both qualities can become second nature. They are vital in developing an understanding of our loved one’s behaviors, frustrations, and daily challenges. These qualities help us cope and negotiate with the world from our loved one’s perspective, not ours.
When I was in training to become a counselor, I was blessed to have two marvelous co-directors of the program that I attended at St. Paul University, Ottawa. Merle Stern and Rev. Adrian Visscher, SCJ, became my mentors and good friends over the years. Part of my training involved experiential exercises. These sessions were intended to sensitize us to what people who seek counseling might be experiencing in their troubled lives. This training enabled us to develop our skills so as to become compassionate and empathetic counselors.
Despite professional training, I must confess that my years of caring for Mom were still challenging ones. At times, I thought I was failing her, but by trying frequently to imagine what the illness and the world were like for her, I grew in wisdom, compassion, and empathy. It also helped give me more patience and strength to deal with the daily stresses. Caring for Mom redefined my entire being for the better.
If you have had similar experiences, I invite you to try this exercise below, visualizing in your mind that you are your loved one with the dementia.
(Adapted from a Reflection written by Merle Stern)
Find a quiet place…Close your eyes…Focus on your breathing.
Let your mental state become calm and relaxed.
Visualize yourself for a moment crawling into the skin of your loved one.
You are wearing the familiar clothing of your loved one, sitting in the same manner.
You are living in a body you do not recognize as your own.
You have no memories from one moment to the other.
You have memories from way back, but you are unable to plug into these memories on your own.
Sometimes when someone triggers those memories, it feels like light shining in the darkness.
Everyone around you seems like foreigners; in fact, you feel like a foreigner to yourself.
You do not know who you are.
When you hear your name, at times you do not know it is your name.
You feel disconnected from everything and yourself.
It is a strange world in which you live–no connections–no benchmarks.
Feel what it feels like to live this every moment of your waking day.
Gradually phase out this experience…focusing on your breathing.
Gradually feel yourself moving into your own space.
Take a few moments now to reflect on what has been the value of this experience for you. How will you be able to use it? Visualize a moment when you could have used the insights gleaned. Return to that experience and replay the same scenario with your coming from where you are at this moment, and the insights you have gained.
What has been the value for you? How do you think this will be of value now in your interactions with your loved one? If you keep a journal, you may want to write about the insights you have gained.
Compassion and empathy will not drain, but will enliven you! Inadequate as you may feel at times as a caregiver, remember that you have phenomenal strength, and a capacity to be compassionate and empathetic under the most stressful moments.
Sunday is Valentine’s Day, a perfect time to take a few minutes to reflect on what makes your caring meaningful and not burdensome. There may come a time in the stages of dementia when your loved one may not remember you, or be able to call you by name. The important thing is that YOU remember your loved one and the person he or she once was.
I’d like to end with this quote, author unknown: “To love someone is to learn the song in their heart and sing it to them when they have forgotten it.”
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For two weeks, starting midnight, Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, I am hosting a contest on the website “Goodreads.” Log on for a chance to win a free copy of my new book, Elegy for Mom, A Memoir of Family Caregiving, Alzheimer’s and Devotion. I will even autograph the book. The contest will end at 11:59 PM, Sunday, February 28. Click on this link to take you to my website’s News and Events page for more information. Then click on the title to take you to the Goodreads page. Remember—the contest will not begin until Valentine’s Day!
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Bill and Glad have been married for 50 years. Glad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Bill talks about his love for her in this short video, “What is Love?” Take a look: https://youtu.be/GH5n9lVZcM4
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The Social Care Institute for Excellence has come out with a series of videos about dementia. “Dementia from the Inside” is a seven-minute video that gives the viewer a feeling and perspective for what it must be like to have dementia: https://youtu.be/Erjzl1WL8yQ.
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This Valentine’s Day, celebrate your years of loving, even though your loved one may not be able to do so. If you are caring for your spouse, take time to watch and listen together to “One Hand, One Heart.” This song is from the 1961 Academy Award winning musical, inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet: https://youtu.be/_A0fVWomF90. It’s a musical /visual Valentine’s Day card.