We need to be careful that we don’t associate the term “dementia” (the condition of progressively losing certain cognitive skills) with the word “demented,” which has come to mean being crazy. When we experience dementia we do not become crazy. We lose some cognitive skills, not all, and the ones we keep are the ones we need to enjoy living in the present. Which brings us to another concept: mindfulness. The purpose of exercising mindfulness is to stay in the present—because beauty, companionship and all the good things in life are in the present (not the past or future).
So, is mindfulness helpful with dementia? The short answer is oh yes: those who are the companions of those experiencing it will benefit from mindfully choosing to be in the present with them. For those experiencing dementia, there is no need to try to be mindful because they are losing the very skills that distract them from the present. In fact, they are becoming unable to leave the present—but not unable to enjoy it.
Why mindfulness and dementia are complementary
Let’s think for a moment about which skills we need to be mindful and those we lose to dementia. Dementia takes away our rational thinking skills, our memory skills, and our ability to manage our attention. These are the skills most helpful for being productive and taking care of ourselves in a competitive and highly technological society. They allow us to retain information about the past and anticipate and solve problems in the future; having attention skills allows us to focus our attention where it’s needed. However, this array of skills gives us access to a lot of information—which can keep us distracted from what’s going on around us in the present. To be mindful, we realize that the good things in life are in the present, and so we train our minds to be more conscious of the present and what we want to enjoy.
On the other hand, dementia does not take away our intuitive thinking skills or our ability to fully experience what occurs in the present: sensory input (beauty in any form we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch), companionship and the full range of emotions.
Our intuitive thought processes enable us to recognize our own feelings and the feelings of others, savor beauty, and enjoy all the information our senses bring to us. That means we retain the ability to revel in all the best things in life—anything that is beautiful as well as our relationships with other people. In Dementia Beyond Drugs, Allen Power reports seeing people who score zero on a cognitive abilities test who, when they see a fellow resident in need, respond with compassion.
Providing support for our loved ones and clients’ rational thought processes is our responsibility as their caregivers. The bonus is that, when we do, they can relax and enjoy everything their intuitive thought processes bring them. It’s a lot of fun to spend time with someone who lives in the intuitive world.
How do we enter the intuitive world with them?
Take the time to look at what Dan Cohen is doing through his program musicandmemory.org, and watch his YouTube clip “Alive Inside, Henry.” Music activates our intuitive thought. It is a wonderful way to spend time with people who have dementia. Learn the music and songs they enjoyed listening to at earlier times in their lives and create playlists to listen to together.
Stay in the present. If you stop thinking about the past and future, you are left with what you can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste—in the present. The present is filled with sensory stimulation, if you manage to still your rational mind and pay attention. Look around. Listen. Bring something with you to share: something that tastes good or smells good, or flowers, fabrics, buttons, scrapbooks—everything and anything can provide positive sensory stimulation.
Get out and go. Do you really have to sit at home or in the care facility? Could you not take your loved one or client out for a drive, out for a latte, to a quiet parking spot in a park to watch children play, or a bench in a crowded square to watch people? It’s emotionally painful for our brains to have too little sensory or social stimulation. Agitation, exit-seeking, combative behaviors aren’t really dementia behaviors; they’re really the behaviors we humans exhibit when we’re feeling stress.
Here at DAWN, we take care of our clients’ rational thought processes and they begin to feel safe and become remarkably happy and relaxed using just their intuitive thought processes. It’s an amazing transformation. Most of our clients still live at home alone and take part in activities in the community with us. We make sure they get so much physical exercise, social contact, and sensory stimulation that by the end of the day they are tired and ready to go to sleep. They don’t have to be locked up in care facilities. They’re not the least bit crazy, just happily “demented” and living in the intuitive world.
In sum, dementia won’t make you crazy unless the people around you don’t understand how to take care of rational thinking and remembering factual data for you so you can enjoy living in the intuitive world. And being mindful is the best way to give yourself a break from the stresses of modern life—especially when you’re providing care for someone.