Older adults often say to me, “I don’t feel old: I don’t feel different inside.” That’s because the essence of who we are doesn’t change. It does not age. My mother-in-law no longer remembers who I am. But when I sit with her and she holds my hand, we feel each other’s essence. Her physical and mental tools don’t work the way they used to, which, of course, is a loss. But our time together is no less valuable because she won’t remember it after I’ve gone. Sometimes, at the end of our visit when I am heading home, I realize that I am happier than when I came. This is the gift of connecting on a heart-level, being able to see someone’s wholeness, and not being troubled by the brain’s limitations.
Key to The Elderwise Way: Spirit-Centered Care is this sense of wholeness. At Elderwise, we support the needs of each individual—frail or not—while continuing to honor their essential wholeness. What makes us whole? By exploring this question, we can illuminate some of the unconscious assumptions we make about people as they face different kinds and degrees of debilitation.
WHAT IS WHOLENESS?
Mentally envision the youngest person you know. Now see the oldest, and the array of people at various ages in between. Then ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you whole if you are a baby?
- Are you whole if you are a toddler?
- Are you whole if you are a teenager?
- Are you whole if you are a person with an amputation? Multiple sclerosis? Mental illness?
- Are you whole if you are one hundred and five years old?
- Are you whole if you have dementia?
While different considerations and rationales emerge when addressing these questions, we have a societal understanding that individuals in these age groups are whole, even though not fully developed, either mentally or physically.
We also have a general societal understanding that if someone has had an amputation of a body part, the personhood, the Who are you? of that individual, their essence, remains intact. But when a disease state affects the brain, such as in Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, the question hits closer to home and we may not be as clear in our answers. Even more so with dementia: As brain function—the ability to think and remember—progressively declines, how then do we answer the question, Is this person whole?
The Elderwise answer to this question is a resounding Yes! At the core of who one is, one is whole. I am not saying that problems with the body or brain are not losses. A broken leg is a loss; an amputation is a loss; and dementia is an even bigger loss because it gets closer to one’s essence, or what one identifies as I/me/myself. But we are more than our bodies and more than our brains. The core or essence of who we are is whole, always.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WHOLENESS
This is an invaluable attitude to hold. When I speak with someone, I speak to the whole, the depth, of who that person is. I am not speaking to a broken leg, or an amputation, or dementia: I am speaking to the wholeness of the other.
We are born, we live, and we die. During our lifetimes, our bodies develop, and our brains develop. Inevitably, we have problems with those bodies, brains, or both. While we don’t all get dementia, many of us will have cognitive loss of some sort. We are used to thinking of such losses as being destructive of a person’s essence, but in my experience, this has nothing to do with who anyone is as a person, any more than losing a limb or an organ changes the essence of who we are.
With The Elderwise Way: Spirit-Centered Care, this invaluable concept of wholeness is central to the spirit-centered model of care, in which we treat all persons with the respect and reverence that acknowledges who the individual is at the very depth of their being. And that person—no matter what their age or level of function—will understand that you see them, that you see who they really are, and they will feel the depth of that respect and the dignity with which they are being perceived and addressed.