In the 1943 classic best-selling children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the wise fox teaches The Little Prince about love, friendship, and trust. “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The background scenery to The Little Prince is a desert far from civilization. The aviator-narrator’s plane has crashed. Here he meets the mystical boy who is searching for a way to get back home to his asteroid B-612 to tend to his rose.
Spoiler Alert: The Little Prince does find the answers to his questions about what is important in life. He decides to return to his planet to tend to the rose that he loved. Love makes a person responsible for the beings that one loves. Our loved ones can teach us the true values and meaning of life and love if we are open to “seeing with our hearts.”
In some ways this story is really for adults, as it is a poetic allegory of human nature, loneliness, love, and loss. To a person with dementia, it may seem, at times, as if their world is a desert, void of familiar signs and familiar faces. This desert, however, is not arid. It flowers with emotional, musical, and long-term memories.
“What time is it? What day is this?” These questions, repeated over and over again, are really their attempts to connect to us, to communicate, to make sense of their everyday world. A person with dementia is not intentionally trying to make your life difficult. Each moment is a new experience for them, at times a frightening one.
People with dementia pay more attention to what they see than to what they hear. Our body language and facial expressions give them visual cues. The way you approach your loved one, then, can make a big difference whether they interact positively with what you are asking them to do, or instead become belligerent or upset. If you are calm, they will get calm, too.
We, as caregivers, must attempt every day to “see clearly with the heart,” to see the person, not the dementia. This is even more a necessity when our loved ones are in the stage of their disease when they are no longer able to verbalize their needs or feelings. We become our loved one’s reality. They depend on us to help them stay connected to the world. “Seeing clearly with the heart” takes a conscious, patient, loving effort, especially during times of anger, frustration, or misunderstanding.
It is our role to understand the clues our loved ones give us about their wants, needs, and feelings. Looking with the “eyes of the heart” enables us to look beyond their behaviors, to check their non-verbal cues, and to reassure them that we care and want to understand and help.
There are many instances each day when you have opportunities to manifest your love. Here are just a few:
- Focusing on what skills they still have to do things that give your loved one a sense of accomplishment;
- Being patient by waiting while your loved one searches for a word;
- Treating them the way you want to be treated;
- Engaging in activities that reduce their boredom;
- Enjoying a laugh, a walk together, an activity they love to do;
- Modeling how to do activities of daily living, such as taking a bath or dressing oneself;
- Reassuring them when they are uncertain how to do things;
- Providing a “comfort zone” in the home where they feel safe and secure;
- Redirecting them when they get confused;
- Comforting them when they cry or are fearful;
- Detecting their pain when they are distressed;
- Accepting the reality of this disease.
“Seeing clearly with the heart” is an attitude that requires cultivation and practice. Here is a reflection that may help:
At the end of each day or most days, find a quiet spot. While focusing on your breathing, try to become at one with your surroundings. Take a moment and scan over your day.
Remember all the love and support you received. Think of each person who entered your life, one way or another, near or far. Think of the acts of love you received, no matter how small; e.g., the stranger who held the door open for you as you left the supermarket. Include your pets, the bird that was sitting on a branch in your backyard chirping away, diffusing your feelings of frustration or anxiety.
Think of one moment, even though it might be fleeting, of the love you received from your Loved One. Hold on to that feeling for a few moments and become aware of how it transcends all the other experiences.
For those who live far away, feel their presence and their love for you, and how they continue to express their love for you. On special anniversaries, remember those who have died and the love they have given you.
And finally, recall your own acts of love that day, no matter how small or simple, like taking time out of your busy schedule to fill the birdbath with water on a hot summer day.
At the very end of this exercise, try to identify what has been the value of this experience for you. How can you integrate this into your daily life?
In this season of spring, Easter, and Passover, may we look at life and our loved ones with new eyes and a renewed heart! I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving journey!
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Many thanks to my friend and mentor, Merle Stern, for composing the reflection on love.
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This is a short video about an experiment of looking at loved ones with new eyes: https://youtu.be/VsojBgHqeg4. I guarantee it is a tearjerker.
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Here is the opening song, “Somewhere Only We Know,” to a film made about The Little Prince: https://youtu.be/ATiJ7i8m8rY. This movie clip is when the tamed fox, played by Gene Wilder, gives his secret to The Little Prince: https://youtu.be/FOA7CcVOFIs.
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