Recent statistics from Stats Canada indicated that an ever-growing segment of our population is in the senior age range.
As this trend continues to increase, with the aging of the baby boomers, we are more and more likely to find ourselves in situations where a parent, friend, spouse or loved one is diagnosed with a form of dementia. When that happens, partly from having to deal with our own personal sense of loss as we watch our loved one grow farther away from us, we grieve the relationship and the person that once was. We struggle to find ways of connecting to the spark or life force that made them who they were. Can it even be accessed, we wonder?
Is there value in visiting a person who seems to no longer be aware of who we are? What do we do? What do we say? How do we interact?
Even in the intensity of the losses associated with dementia, there are always times when gifts of laughter, connection, joy and hope break through.
And here’s an example. Recently, my wife Joan wrote an account of a visit she had with her mother, who has dementia. It’s called The Party. She has given permission for me to share it with you. (Names have been changed to protect identities).
At the care home where my mother lives, supper has ended. The staff are beginning their evening routine.
While they are busy with those who need the most time and assistance to prepare for bed, out in the common area, the wanderers wander and the sitters sit.
I am at a table with my mother and Edna. During the meal, Edna kept up a lively chatter about what she could see outside, and, in the after supper lull, she continues her commentary about what colour car is driving up, the beautiful pink flowers on the tree by the window and, most importantly, her speculation about why the red van has its lights on.
Edna is from Nova Scotia and has a real wit that comes out in her accent. One of her comments strikes me as very funny, and I begin to laugh. She joins in.
One of the staff members coming into the area from a room laughs at us laughing. Soon, Mary, one of the wanderers, comes to the table and is invited to sit. She speaks Romanian but obviously likes laughter because her face breaks into a huge grin as she watches us.
By this time, Edna is on a roll, and there is the beginning of a party feel! Paula, another wanderer, who is Polish and speaks little English, takes the chair beside my mother. She enters wholeheartedly into the jovial atmosphere with her booming laugh.
The staff person brings over some grapes and watermelon slices on a couple of plates, remarking that “you can’t have a party without finger food.”
I take on the role of waiter and make a grand show of serving the ladies. They giggle with glee. Mary says “Thenk yuu.” Paula, too.
Another resident stops by the table for a moment in her endless walk, gazes in my face and gives me the most beautiful, toothless grin. That makes me laugh, and she leans down and ever so gently smoothes her hand over my forehead and kisses the top of my head. She leaves, but I am held in the grace of the moment.
Edna looks up and sees the newest resident, a man, walking into the area in his pyjamas. This strikes her as funny, and she says, “You just never know what you are going to see in this place. This is a first. A man in pyjamas!” Paula and Mary glance over to where Edna is pointing, and they break out in delightful chuckles, shaking their heads.
Paula is warm, so she unzips her sweater. Mary, who is wearing a hat, as well as a sweater with a zipper which is zipped all the way up, leans over and zips Paula’s sweater up. We laugh. Paula, with a flourish, unzips her sweater. And then leans over and unzips Mary’s sweater. Mary is hugely amused, and she zips Paula’s sweater back up. By this time, I am laughing a belly laugh. The laughter escalates when Paula unzips Mary’s sweater completely and out fall all the things that Mary has collected in her wanderings that day — some gloves, a rolled-up bib, lots of Kleenex. Mary enjoys the attention as Paula and I gather up her treasures and stuff them back under her sweater. Paula solemnly zips it up, and Mary gives her a gracious bow of thanks.
Mary begins sings a hymn in her language, while Edna keeps time with her fingers. Paula, not to be outdone, sings a hymn in Polish. When she is finished, Edna sings out loudly, “Yummy yummy yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy,” which prompts Edna and Paula to say YUMMY over and over again while pointing at the empty plates. We all break out in laughter again.
When I look at the clock, I am amazed that half an hour has gone by. The staff return and begin taking each lady at the table to their rooms to do their evening care.
The party is over. I kiss my mother goodnight and walk to the door with a smile on my face.
It was the best party I’ve ever attended.
It’s not really about what we do or say that makes a difference in the lives of people with dementia. Most importantly, it is about our presence and about finding the grace that is within each moment.
— Submitted by Rev. Daniel Fournier of St John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Ladysmith