The experiential self is that part of us that remains, despite dementia. It is the part of us that is aware of what is happening in the present—through our senses. The best way to increase companionship and decrease stress in the caregiving relationship is to become more aware of the experiential self and to understand how to support it.
Focus on the present. Most of us live in the past and the future more than we live in the present. Our remembering selves are constantly recalling what happened the last time we stood in this spot, ate this food, spoke with this person. Our rational thought constantly leads us to compare, interpret, analyze, and draw conclusions—and leads our thoughts into the future with anticipation and planning.
We can, however, choose to join our companions who have dementia. We can enjoy the respite that living in the present provides, with a little practice. We can use our senses to tune in to whatever is around us. This is where someone experiencing dementia has no choice but to live.
Think about what your senses are telling you. What can you smell right now? What do you hear? If you turn away from your computer or phone, what do you see within a foot of you? in the distance?
Here at DAWN, most of our time with our clients is spent outside the home or care facility. We take them walking outdoors when weather permits and in the mall when it doesn’t. We go for drives. We poke around antique stores, fabric stores, hardware stores, coffee shops … wherever we can find something to touch, smell, listen to, or taste. We want our clients to reach the end of the day full of the good experiences we’ve found for them.
Our brains need stimulation, and continue to receive stimulation through the senses, long after dementia has taken away the ability to identify, label, or talk about what is being experienced.
Search for beauty. Beauty is magical. For my clients, it seems to nourish their sense of well-being. Beauty exists in melodies, colors, and scents. It is easy to find in clouds, flowers, vistas, and machinery. Even in a cracked city sidewalk, you can find a dandelion blossom. When we, as caregivers, focus on finding beauty, both we and our loved ones enjoy the benefits.
Search for gratitude. Gratitude is just another form of beauty. Gratitude is beauty in action. When we look for a silver lining in a situation, we are creating beauty. Gratitude is uplifting, soothing, and energizing. When our clients here at DAWN are distressed by something, we look for some aspect that will turn their negative feelings into gratitude.
In our culture of technology and busyness, with our focus on accomplishment and production, we forget to enjoy the simple things that surround us in the present. Spending time with someone experiencing dementia will enrich your life, if you see the value in being experiential.
When we as caregivers become more aware of what is happening in our presence, we become more aware of what is affecting a loved one who is experiencing dementia. Consciously shaping the present, and using our own memory and rational thought on behalf of our loved ones, is not only a great kindness but also the best way to enhance companionship.