We all know that people who are experiencing dementia are losing memory. I often hear people say that when someone has lost their memories, they have lost themselves. Is that true?
I don’t think so. With our healthy brains, we are not only the sum of our past experiences. We have the ability to experience the present as well as recall what has gone before.
This morning I am sitting at my desk with sunshine streaming in the window, warm on my shoulders. I can hear children playing in the yard next door. I hear the garbage truck down the block and a car pulling up at the stop sign at the corner. Starlings are chattering in a lilac bush outside the window and a crow is cawing from a treetop across the street. I can smell the lilacs and the scent of the green tea mingled with ginger that I’m drinking. I am fully myself, experiencing the moments that are mine in the present.
I can also recall what happened earlier this morning. I went to the gym, came back home and made an espresso (well, two), showered, chatted on Skype with my son who is traveling in Portugal, read my email, replied to email, and renewed my internet security subscription for another year. And I can recall what happened yesterday, last week, last month, last year.
Am I more fully myself in my memories or in my experience of the present? Am I any less myself when I pay attention to what is around me? I think not. With both my sensory skills and memory skills intact, I am blessed with two selves—two ways of interacting with my world and my life.
Paying attention to both our selves. When we are living or working with people experiencing dementia, it becomes essential that we recognize the duality of our human existence and experience, because the person with dementia is losing only one form of existence. In dementia, the experiential self—the part of us that lives in and experiences the present—carries on.
What happens when only our experiential selves remain? When we live as experiential beings alone, we become more aware. Without memories to distract us, or rational thought to interrupt us with comparisons or analysis or anticipation, we are more fully engaged by and with the information our senses deliver to us.
Even when someone has lost the ability to interpret or explain what they see, hear, taste, smell, or feel, they are still receiving sensory input. We, as their companions and caregivers need to realize this and be careful of what happens to them in the present. We need to truly focus on them as individuals—individuals who are still fully themselves. What they are experiencing will be the source and cause of how they feel, react, and respond to us.
When we are aware of our two selves—the experiential self and the remembering self—it is easier to spend time with someone experiencing dementia. Companionship is enhanced.