Alzheimer's blog

Gifts from past year resonate in new year of dementia care

By Angela Lunde January 14, 2014

The new year is a time of transition, fresh starts and new possibilities. It's also a natural time to reflect on the past year's memorable moments and transformative experiences.

For me, it's a time when I'm keenly aware that my life is a journey influenced by circumstances, the people I meet and the relationships I maintain. More importantly, I'm mindful that the quality of my life is influenced by the choice I make each day to find meaning in all that comes my way.

My work is a meaningful gift and I count it a privilege when I'm welcomed into the lives of those impacted by dementia. My relationship with each person offers me new perspectives and invaluable lessons. I'll share a few that resonate with me most as I think back on 2013.

  • The gift of suffering. While I don't wish suffering on anyone, I've come to see it as a gift. To have a relationship with suffering is to also have a relationship with compassion. Some of the most compassionate people I know are those who have experienced incredible suffering. Suffering connects us as human beings. Compassion literally means "suffering with".
  • The gift of humanness. Most people I know living with dementia don't care about my resume, title, credentials or awards. They don't judge based on background, economic status or what one has or doesn't have. Yet, they do care if someone is kind and compassionate. They know if a person is patient, understanding and accepting. They respond to caring eyes, open body language, warm facial expressions and touch. People living with dementia serve as living reminders of important human virtues.
  • The gift of seeing wholeness. One of the most important lessons I've learned from people living with dementia is that disability doesn't mean a person is "less than". Those living with dementia know, feel, and experience life much more than we appreciate. Their creative, emotional and spiritual contributions are immense and are a gift to all who are open enough to see it.
  • The gift of vulnerability. Every week I witness people living with dementia as well as caregivers courageously embracing life — participating in programs, support groups, advocating on important issues and sharing their story. They've taught me that by putting ourselves out there and exposing our imperfect selves, our sense of disconnection dissolves. When we share our vulnerability, our fears and our true self, people connect with us. I've learned that being "strong" generally alienates us, while vulnerability connects us.
  • The gift of holding space. I spent many years early in my career wanting desperately to solve, fix and talk those impacted by dementia out of their denial and other undesirable feelings. I wanted to make people feel better. But the hard lesson for me was the realization that not only was I unsuccessful much of the time, I wasn't helpful. I've learned that sometimes we're called simply to hold space for a person as they experience whatever they need to go through; to listen, to accept whatever they're feeling and to simply be alongside them. Holding space teaches humility, conscientiousness and the necessity to step out of the way.
  • The gift of forgiveness. The most resilient caregivers have taught me a thing or two about forgiveness. I've witnessed caregivers absolve past grievances so as not to waste energy and spirit on situations that can't be changed. I've seen them accept family members even when they don't live up to their expectations. Most importantly, I've seen caregivers extend forgiveness to themselves by believing that they're doing the best they can and allowing "good enough'' to be the gold standard.
  • The gift of accepting life as it unfolds. We all have hopes, dreams, and expectations for the way we want life to play out. So when it takes an unrequested turn, we feel the pain. Letting go of the belief that there's only one path for happiness opens us to go with the flow of life. Acceptance of that is is a choice that creates forward momentum while resistance keeps us stuck. Acceptance is a choice to trust that whatever unfolds is a new opportunity for learning, growth and happiness.

These lessons and perspectives are my gifts received from you — persons living with dementia and care partners, as well as my beloved colleagues, who, along with me are blessed to have such meaning and purpose in our life's work.

Jan. 14, 2014