The easiest part of caregiving is taking
care of physical needs of the elderly and disabled. You
can take courses on CPR, medication management and a
variety of much needed services which keep the body
clean and healthy. But it is rare to find courses on
"medicine for the soul", the spiritual and often
emotional aspect of care.
My mother has Alzheimer's disease. She
does not know night from day, how to dress, the names
and relationships in her closest family circle. But
every time I greet her, on the phone or in person, I
say, "Hello Mumsie, this is your daughter Myrna" and she
lights up. And she says loving things, even some humor
here and there, and we feel connected. She cries with
me, telling me, in halted and disconnected words,
stories of her past, and her love for her family.
Beneath the veil of dementia, people can
and do communicate if we provide them the safety and
stimulation. It may be only a tear, or a holding of a
hand, or a few disjointed words, but I can feel the
connection. As long as I can elicit a reaction, I still
know that we are connected. And because of my
relationship to her, even when she can no longer react,
I know that she will still know that someone she loves
is with her.
After 12 years of observing and treating
elderly clients, I feel like I am in the process of
"getting it," really understanding how to love
unconditionally and accept what is happening to someone
These are a few of my guidelines for
Always treat them with respect, not as a child (even if
the behavior is childlike). The real adult is still in
there, and on some level resists being treated or spoken
to as an inferior person.
Be fully present when you are with them.
Listen. Agree. Being present is a gift, maybe that is
why they call it a present.
Forget logic. Pretend that what they are
saying makes perfect sense. Or try to reword the words
so that they do make sense, and ask if that is what they
intended to say. Congratulate them on making themselves
so clear. Don't say, "Do you remember? They
probably don't, and feel pressured to come up with the
Use your sense of humor. Recall past
funny experiences with them and encourage laughter. When
my mother first moved into her new home, a gentleman
pursued her. He is now in a wheelchair; she has
dementia. When I saw him in the lobby, I asked her if
that was the man who was running after her. She smiled
and said, "Run, he can't even walk!" We laughed; she
felt so smart. We connected.
Don't negate their fears by saying
"Everyone forgets sometimes." They know at some level
that their level of forgetting isn't the norm. I laugh
with my mother and tell her that her memory is lousy.
She laughs too, and then tells me how scared she is. We
hug and I tell her that our family will always take care
Itís not easy or simple, but somehow, it
is easy and simple. I grow and learn every day. I
know that the real person inside needs to be stroked,
and accepted and loved. Sing old songs, play music,
play. Speak from your heart, not your mind. Tell them
all the good things you remember. Touch, hug, rub their
arm and brush their hair. We forget that old people do
not get physically touched in loving ways very often.
Let them feel the human connection. That's how our
sprits connect, too.
And I myself am not getting any younger.
I think I will send this letter to my sons.
Myrna Wolf is President of Compassionate
Companions, Inc., an agency specializing is serving the
non-medical needs of the older adults and their
families. She is a respected caregiver, trainer,
and public speaker.
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