You may recognize this quote as something said by Ram Dass, an American spiritual leader of the 1960-70s. To me, it’s a profoundly simple way to describe the role of caregiving.
Offering care means being a companion, not a superior. It doesn’t matter whether the person we are caring for is experiencing cancer, the flu, dementia, or grief. If you are a doctor or surgeon, your expertise and knowledge comes from a superior position. But when our role is to be providers of care, we should be there as equals.
Ah, you might think, but when it’s dementia we are superior because the people we care for are losing their minds. Actually, they are only losing memory and rational thought. We have two very different sets of thinking processes: rational thought and intuitive thought. Intuitive thought is the source of our creativity, our means of enjoying beauty and music and sensing other people’s feelings. Our intuitive skills help us savor the moment, but they also enable us to learn from experience. They shape our beliefs and impressions. They are not good for following instructions or accomplishing tasks, but they are the skills that connect us with some of the greatest joys in life.
I see my friends and clients who are experiencing the cognitive losses of dementia show incredible ingenuity as they attempt to navigate our technical world without rational thought – not to mention courage, endurance, and grace. Those of us who still have memory and both types of thought should be in awe. We may have more tools at our disposal, but we’re not superior.
At present, my staff and I are all women. We are sisters and daughters and mothers and aunts. But the people we spend time with – our clients – are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. Many of us are grandparents, too. As caregivers and care receivers, we’re all just walking life’s path together. When we approach caregiving with the mindset that we are partners experiencing life with different abilities, caregiving becomes less stressful. It becomes easier to enjoy the intuitive with those who have dementia, and less onerous to take care of rational thinking for them. When we remember that they are our equals, things go more smoothly when we spend time together.
My knowledge of dementia and how it affects people came originally from experience, not from education. My educational background is in art, literature, languages and law, but for six years I spent more time with people experiencing dementia than with people who had healthy brains. My clients were my first dementia teachers; one of the most important things they taught me was the truth of Ram Dass’ statement, that cognitive impairment does not change our worth as people. They showed me the joy of living intuitively, and the fun we could have doing it. I saw a number of them all the way home. Each has seen me along the way toward my own home.
So, as the care partners of people experiencing dementia, let’s be sure that we understand our role. We are the companions of people who are just like us. They are experts in intuitive thought, while we are more expert with rational thought, but we are all walking the path of life together.
Our companions with dementia have as much to give us as we have to give them, as we walk each other home.