You may recognize this quote as something said by Ram Dass, an American spiritual leader of the 1960-70s. To me, it is a profoundly simple way to describe the role of caregiving.
It doesn’t matter whether the person we are caring for is experiencing cancer, the flu, dementia, or grief. Offering care means being a companion, not a superior. If you are a doctor or surgeon, you offer treatment, so your expertise and knowledge do come from a superior position. But when our role is to provide care, we are there as equals.
Ah, you might think, but when it’s dementia we are superior. We’re smarter than our charges; their brains are failing. If you find yourself thinking this, please read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. We have two very different sets of thinking processes, both of which are at our disposal until we begin to experience dementia. My friends and clients who are experiencing memory and rational thought losses show incredible ingenuity as they attempt to navigate the 21st Century 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 be luckier, but we are not superior.
We’re all just walking the dementia path together. It doesn’t matter whether we use the words caregiver and care receiver, care partners, or even carer and caree. What matters is that we operate from this one truth: that the person who is experiencing dementia is just another companion on the dimly lit sidewalk of life. They are the same as us; they are our equals. Our understanding of this should be apparent whenever we are with them.
I’m not a doctor and I don’t have an education in the sciences. I’m not a social worker either. I’m a lawyer—one with an education in art, music, literature and language as well as law. During the past eight years I’ve spent more time with people experiencing dementia than with people who have fully functional brains. What I learned was that dementia takes away some of our cognitive skills but not all of them, and that dementia takes away our remembering selves but not our experiential selves. I’ve been taught by experts how to enjoy living intuitively, in the present, fully enjoying everything our senses and feelings bring to us.
I’ve seen a number of my clients—my friends—all the way home. Each has seen me a long 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 teammates, partners. We are walking with people who are just like us, our equals. We have different skills, but we walk together. They have as much to give us as we have to give them, as we walk each other home.