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Medicine for the Soul- A Caregiverís Guide
to a Spiritual Relationship

By Myrna Wolf, B.A.

 

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 I love.

These are a few of my guidelines for success:
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 correct answer.

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 of her.

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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