I’ll be heading north and west tomorrow; first by train to Toronto for the Changing Melody conference (of and by people living with dementia), then to speak at Alzheimer’s Disease International on Sunday. Monday I head west for talks in Edmonton and Saskatoon, winding up in Seattle to give a three-part intensive for their 26th Annual Regional Alzheimer’s Conference.
As I prepare to head out, our “Eden Quote of the Day” (posted by Susan Thomas, Care Partner Extraordinaire), is a quote from 20th century American commentator Alexander Woolcott: “There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.” Now on the surface, this sounds like a simple call to do our best and be present in our daily lives and work. But as usual, there is a nursing home aspect, and one for dementia as well.
Looking at people who live in nursing homes, this quote challenges us to remember that every day in each elder’s life should be as rich with meaningful engagement as possible. We need to remove the ageist attitude that says that just because people are old and functionally limited, that this kind of daily purpose is no longer important or attainable.
Such meaning may come from giving care to others in the living environment (human or otherwise), from having daily input into the life of the household, leading one’s own care decisions, engaging in activities that speak to one’s own values and history, and also having the opportunity to experience personal growth and self-actualization throughout one’s life.
Furthermore, this right must not be abdicated when a person lives with any form or degree of dementia. Engagement and empowerment can occur on all levels, with all functional or cognitive capacities. It is the job of long-term care providers to make their own days important, largely by keeping the elders’ days important as well. The primary tool to accomplish this is close, continuous relationships.
In my recent Tennessee sessions, Melanie Adair told the story of Kathryn, a 103-year-old woman with advancing dementia, who developed a close and meaningful reclationship with her primary aide, who was African-American. Not long before her death, Kathryn revealed to her young friend that she had been raised to fear and dislike people of color, and that through their friendship she had learned how very wrong this was. She had been praying for forgiveness for her lifelong attitude; and as a result of prayer and of sharing this with her friend, a great weight had been lifted from her soul. Not long after, Kathryn passed away, having achieved a new level of important personal growth after 103 years.
The sad epilogue is that at the funeral, her family eulogized her by saying that they would only talk about their mother of years past, because “she hasn’t been there recently–we lost her a long time ago.”
This family failed to see that every day was still important for their mother, and that age and infirmity do not halt one’s growth; only we and our attitudes can do that.