I work with people with dementia. One of the gifts of this work is that I have learned that sometimes, when the cognitive aspects of a person decline, it allows the heart, which remains accessible, to expand. It is a joy to be in the presence of people with expanding hearts.
A kind of humbling comes with the diagnosis of dementia. But the vulnerability that often comes with declining age, and even more so with declining cognition, can also allow for increased openness. What is needed is an atmosphere to foster such openness. At Elderwise, the adult day program that I co-founded in Seattle in 1997, I find that people are willing to try new things and share in new ways. Grateful to be present in the group, I watch them sit up a little taller and lean into the conversation.
In this group, in its many configurations over the years, I continue to find a depth of presence, a feeling of gratitude for being together, and a kind of warm-hearted acceptance too often lacking in our culture. Currently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, though we do have weekly Zoom meetings, I miss my time around the table with people with dementia.
I have tried to capture the essence of what I have learned in my more than 20 years of sharing experiences with people with dementia in The Elderwise Way: A Different Approach to Life with Dementia, the book I co-authored with Ruth Neuwald Falcon. In this series for Changing Aging, we would like to share the key concepts that make up the philosophy and principles of Elderwise, the home of Spirit-Centered Care, and how we support people with dementia in growing in body, mind and spirit.
THE GIFTS OF WORKING WITH THOSE WITH DEMENTIA
My experience has led me to realize that there can be mutual sharing and support, joy and gratitude, for both frail elder and those who care for them. I recognize the value to society as a whole, if frail, at-risk elders are treated well.
Since its beginnings in my Seattle kitchen in 1997, Elderwise has strived to better understand and expand our notions of how to be with those with cognitive loss. Now a leader in the field of enriched care for elders, it is at the forefront of the expansion of our understanding of how to be with this segment of our population. When we talk about the people we serve, we use the term frail elders—those who need more than the usual amount of support from others to understand and help them satisfy their essential needs. They are often isolated and/or limited due to physical, cognitive, or emotional changes.
Older people are in danger of becoming isolated, closed, and hardened in their habits if they withdraw from the world as their mobility or clarity of thinking decreases. This risk is further compounded when they vent their frustration with their own waning abilities upon those they are closest to. But if we can create an environment that supports frail elders in becoming more adventurous, more joyful, more tolerant, and more trusting, they will then have opportunities to continue their growth and to move toward their death with more openness.
By tapping into creativity, deep joy, and understanding, we raise the quality of life for elders and make a better society for us all. A society that values, nurtures, and supports the growth of elders can help encourage respect for others throughout all stages of the lifespan.
The Elderwise Way is to model an open heart and acceptance, kindness and humor, quiet and reflection, sharing and listening, and courtesy. Elderwise is a place for people to feel whole and quite all right, just as they are. It is a place where various physical and cognitive impairments are a fact of life, not indicative of the core of who one is.
I have been gifted with growing personally through work with a population many people want to avoid, and I want to share the opportunity to grow with you. What if, instead of dreading being with old people, we could enjoy our time with them? What if, by bringing out the light in their eyes, we discover that time with them brings increased light and joy to our own lives?
I look forward to sharing more posts with you that illuminate The Elderwise Way: Spirit-Centered Care.