After devoting the past several years of my life to the study of the human body and illness, I’ve become quite accepting of the idea of death.
It’s not that I’m suddenly a thrill-seeker who’s all about the “carpe-diem” life (because hello, fear of heights), but more the fact that I know how inevitable death is. Physical health is fickle, with a life changing diagnosis delivered after a bad case of the flu or a persistent headache. I know the end of your life may be at any time, particularly with the political state of the world.
The human body is a machine, and machines can fail. Therefore, death by cause of a physical failure is devastating, but not entirely unexpected.
It’s the failure of the mind that truly scares me.
Last week, I finished the first half of my mental health rotation on a secured unit of a long-term care home for people with severe dementia. In six weeks, I went from dreading the placement and honestly feeling a bit scared, to looking forward to what the day would bring in my interactions with the residents. Somehow, after all my reviewing and studying, I’d forgotten that people with dementia are still people.
They’re people who lived full lives for seventy or eighty years. They’re people with families, experiences, and fragmented memories. The things they say and the behaviours they exhibit all have meaning. It’s up to the care provider to decode it. One of the behaviours I found most intriguing was wandering. Some of the residents could be seen pacing the halls all day, putting one foot in front of the other but never arriving at their desired destination. All day they wander the halls, not sure of what they’re looking for, disoriented to where they currently were.
Their minds had failed them. The years they spent creating their lives were slowly lost, with bits and pieces occasionally floating to the surface. Communication is the first thing to progressively decline. First, it’ll be hard to find the right word to complete sentences, but eventually spoken and written language will be lost entirely.
Imagine trying to communicate that you’re hungry, tired or over-whelmed without using words or understanding gestures. Imagine being unaware of your surroundings, unable to leave strange rooms filled with strange and unfamiliar faces.
Dementia is losing a loved one while they stand right in front of you. It’s experiencing grief long before a heart’s stopped beating because everything that made that person them is gone. Dementia steals memories and life experiences slowly but steadily, until there’s nothing left.
I’m not scared of the monsters in the closet, but the one that potentially hides in my brain cells.
I’m terrified of dementia.
The majority of my years so far have been about chasing intellect. I’ve been stuffing my brain full of theories and ideas, expanding my mind to think about problems differently. The idea that it all might one day completely disappear is beyond frightening.
Caring for people with dementia was an eye-opening experience into my own capabilities. I didn’t know I was capable of such patience or openness. I didn’t know I was capable of such kindness. I just set out to maintain the dignity of the people suffering from this disease and hoped that somewhere they would connect with the help I provided.
Because even after they’d lost so much of themselves, they were still able to respond to basic human experiences. A cheerful smile and greeting could be all it takes for a resident to implicitly remember you, even after their short-term memory expired. I learned so much about the individual people living at the home and formed a unique bond with each person. I knew what strategies worked and how best to negotiate with them to finish eating their meal or join an activity. I knew that re-approaching someone who was agitated in five short minutes could change their whole response to the situation.
All it takes is a desire to help. A desire to look past the cognitive impairments, and focus on the person that was still there.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that life really is short. At any given moment, everything you think you know can change or disappear. Take in everything. Make it count.
Don’t stop caring.