Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dancing With Jane

3 Mindfulness Lessons From The Ones With Dementia.

Both with my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's and some of the older residents at Zen Hospice, I have had the opportunity, many times, to experience what it's like to be with a person with dementia. The same questions asked over and over. The accusations. The impossibility to carry on 'normal' conversations. The underline distress . . . Those are the 'bad' parts.

There are also some aspects of relating with the memory impaired that are feeding right into Buddhist practice:
  1. Staying in the present - no need to dwell in the past, or project into the future, for these are no longer part of reality.
  2. Operating from empty self - in the absence of another self to relate to, one's constructed self becomes irrelevant; there is only what happens in this moment, bad words exchanged a few minutes ago never took place.
  3. Practicing equanimity, compassion, and loving kindness - reactive anger would be very unkind; love that forgives and truly understands is the only option.
Last Sunday, I had most profound time with Jane*, an older woman at Zen Hospice. She and I,  both happy from getting what we needed from each other, as we danced with words and I let her have the lead.  She felt understood and loved. And I got an ultimate lesson from her in the art of mindful relating. 

* Not her real name.


  1. yes this reminds me of the time I spent with my dad who had dementia before he died. You had to be prepared for anything (or nothing) when you went to visit. And to listen and offer what you could, as you point out. It was definitely an uncomfortable feeling driving toward the hospital. And then just being there for the visit. Always such good teaching. Disturbing sometimes. It reminds me of something my friend the Zen monk used to say, "be willing to be disturbed."

  2. My dad also went down this road, noticeably changing over a ten year period. Dealing with my own sense of loss, realizing the extent of the comfort and support, my own dependency on what was being lost, was the first hurdle. For him, witnessing his own mental competency slipping away and maintaining a sense of self-worth seemed to be most difficult, at least in the beginning. Your three points seem very appropriate. I appreciate your organized approach to all your topics, very useful. Thanks.

  3. Beautifully thoughtful...your three points are an excellent lesson and reminder ...

    my hospice volunteer experience began with the kind of amazing opportunity for growth... of compassion...that you address here.

    Thank you.

  4. ZenDot, I love that: "be willing to be disturbed." So profound . . .

  5. SmilingHeart, oh! yes, I can so relate to the long descent you went through . . . And your Dad's suffering also. Losing one's mind is one of my greatest fears. Without the mind's ability to be aware, where is the mindfulness? This is actually a question, I don't have an answer for.

  6. Thanks Iona (merci33) - What a full life you have had so far! You and ZenDotStudio should connect . . .

  7. Yes, reminds my of my grandmother who went through this. So sad to see. It's hard to be with someone who doesn't recognize or remember who you are. It definitely brings up questions about what we really are. The person is still there, but many memories aren't. Is the person any less than what they used to be b/c of this?

    Wonderful that you were able to mindfully relate as well as mindfully listen.

  8. Thank you Nate. I definitely think there is something to be gained about viewing Alzheimer's / dementia / memory impairment through a Dharma lens . . .

  9. excellent observations and responses to dementia. It is easier for me to detach with non-family members -- when my mom says something odd and seemingly disconnected it can be very disturbing. But then I remind myself to come back to center, and be with her, and give her all the compassion I can muster. With an elderly friend, her demented ramblings were often a fun romp through time and space - of course her children didn't have the same perception.

    Found your blog via bookbird -- apparently we are worth waking up for :-).

  10. Oh! yes, I just saw bookbird's list - what an honor!

    Regarding the dementia piece, it does bring up the whole question of grief within context of Dharma teachings. The Buddha said, do not grieve, do not be attached . . . I am not there yet :) And I find that I am now more able to be present for my mother, now that I have grieved the loss of who she used to be, and have adapted my expectations to her new, diminished self.

    Sending much metta your way, and your mother's way also. That she may be at peace, and at ease (relatively . . .)