Learning to be

“There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength than to act.”              

— Margaret Bottome

As students head back to classes on campuses around the country, I have been thinking about the school our family has been enrolled in for the last few years. It’s one we didn’t choose to attend and the curriculum is a bit erratic.

I call it the School of Being, because it describes what we are learning about one of our family members who has dementia.

Although like most people in our culture, we want to “do” something in the face of any suffering or loss, in this instance we are finding that often our greatest act of kindness is to “be” with Pops.

Sometimes, he requires action: a shave, help in the bathroom, his glasses cleaned, or hearing aid located. But the focus when we visit him in the memory-care unit where he now lives cannot be on these acts. It has to be on him and where he happens to be at the moment.P1000218

Early in this journey with dementia, someone told us, “You have to enter their world.” And so we do.

That usually means a simple and cheerful greeting and then waiting for a signal. Often, we simply pass through the looking glass with him and see what he is seeing, hear what he is hearing, ponder with him what he is thinking. This can involve answering the same question multiple times as if we are responding for the first time. Or, it can mean summoning our imaginations and indulging in flights of fancy and even a bit of nonsensical speech, the kind we use with little children.

Frequently, Pops reveals a kind of idee fixe that sets the tone for our time with him. It could be “Where’s Mom?” meaning his deceased mother or his very-much-alive wife, or maybe both because he’s mixed them up in his head. Or, if we find him just waking up, we might be treated to some spirited, repetitive commentary on how well he had been sleeping.

One day, while seated at a table in the dining room, he lasered in on several chairs in the next room, saying he was going to sit in one. He remained where he was, however, continuing to talk about his plan to get up and relocate. We encouraged him, reviewed the choices of chairs, and which seats were available, all without any action on his part. Finally, the locus moved to a woman who was sitting – and sleeping – in one of the chairs, so we talked about her and the various aspects of her state of slumber. “She’s really snoozing.” “I think she’s catching some flies.” “Yep, she’s out like a light.”

Another day, Pops told me he had been on an airplane the night before. I learned that he and his wife had been separated so that each was on a different plane. “I bet you didn’t like that,” I said, to which he replied, “No, I didn’t!” And so we were off, chatting about this as if it had really happened, because for him, it had. Whatever the source or reason, it didn’t matter. He was where he was and I was right there with him.

At still other times, Pops becomes agitated if there is too much activity around him or if he sees that we are conversing with an aide, another resident, or visitor, and we are reminded once again of the importance of being with him and being present to him.

P1030986So it is that we are all learning new lessons in this school that has no vacation or seasonal breaks. “Being” is not easy to master in our action-oriented, instant-response world, one in which all our minds are racing toward doing something. It requires slowing down, stilling our thoughts, and, in our encounters, trying to sense where the other person is before we speak or act.

For my part, I’m discovering that I’m still too absorbed in a jumble of thoughts when alone and too quick to jump in and share my own opinions, stories, or ideas when with another. Typically, my own experience or state of mind springs to the fore when someone is talking and, instead of listening, I plunge in with advice or a “that’s just like when” comparison. Or worse, I don’t listen at all.

Being with someone whose cognitive functions are compromised is forcing me to stop, look, and listen because I’m clearly on unfamiliar ground and need to find my way.

As a creature of our active and materialistic society, I am learning from someone whose life has been reduced to the essentials that the most important gift I can give is a quiet and receptive presence, one that waits to see where the other person is and then remains there for a while. Sometimes that means saying nothing and just being there, and accepting that it is enough. The late Fulton J. Sheen once said, “The world’s greatest need is . . . someone who will realize that the real worth is achieved not so much by activity, as by silence.” I think Pops would agree.

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