As we approach the holiday season, a time of gift-giving, it seems appropriate to reflect on the best offering we can give to those we love who have dementia – the gift of presence. Presence is typically defined as “the state or fact of existing, occurring or being present in a place or thing.” However, an alternative definition of “the ability to project a sense of ease, poise or self-assurance, especially the quality or manner of a person’s bearing before an audience” speaks directly to the needs for calmness, reassurance and comfort in those who are confused. Equally, it reminds caregivers, family or friends of the great gifts they offer in “being present” with, and for their loved one, who is their audience. It is no simple statement that the best present for the person with dementia is presence!
Presence in its purest form requires that we live in the moment, the here and now, not constantly planning ahead or looking back in the past. But this can be hard to do on a day to day basis since our lives require both at times. If there is a gift that comes from dementia, especially as the person loses the concept of time, it is that of living for the immediate moment, and of that being sufficient, with no judgment entailed. We as family struggle, however, to keep our loved ones on our time schedule, and to continue to function in our world, often creating frustration for ourselves and for them. We have a hard time letting go of what was, of what might have been, and accepting the new realities as our person changes. We often find ourselves remorseful, and focusing more on what is missing, rather than what is present in our lives. Author Freena Gray-Davidson offers a line in her Alzheimer’s Caregiver’s Prayer: “Help me to journey to the place where it’s enough to be the people we both are.” Mandy Hale offers her words: “You don’t always need a plan. Sometimes you just need to breathe, trust, let go, and see what happens.” How profound their words are!
How do we learn to live in the present, and what does that actually mean? It is to live artfully and well, doing our best now so that the future is better or easier and so that we do not look back with regrets. It means that we need mindfulness, wisdom and understanding so that we can move always towards wholesome, rather than unwholesome ways and thoughts in our day to day living.
Mindfulness serves as a means of tuning into unwholesome or unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors. It alerts us, for instance, of growing anger or anxiety and of the need to take conscious steps to collect ourselves and to not say or do something we might regret. This implies, then, that mindfulness is closely connected to wisdom and understanding. We use them to reflect, caution ourselves, adjust and correct our attitudes. We can similarly use mindfulness, wisdom and understanding to focus on wholesome or positive thoughts and actions, rewarding ourselves for a job well done, or for finding the positives in the course of a day.
When we practice mindfulness, we practice awareness of and attentiveness to all of our daily activities and interactions. We stay more in the moment to moment, day to day experiences, doing the best possible, solving each problem as it arises and not dwelling on our mistakes; rather we resolve not to repeat them. We accept our limitations, use wisdom and understanding to try new ways. We realize that we cannot plan for every possibility, cannot control everything. We learn to let go of that which we cannot control, understanding that having great or unreal expectations or worries does not allow us to concentrate on what we are doing in the present.
When we focus on living in the moment, on truly being with another person, giving our full attention, we create more meaningful interactions, bring depth to our relationships. We find the activities that can be shared together, that are enjoyed, positive and meaningful for our loved ones. We find moments of laughter, of candor, of spirituality in our interactions when we are focused and present. We may also gain new perspectives as we see the world through the eyes of our loved one. We connect to and honor the person within. Jeff Buckley writes: “Be awake enough to see where you are at any given time, and how that is beautiful, and has poetry inside.”
And so, in this Christmas and Hanukkah season, we thank each of you who give of yourselves, who want to give back to those who have meant so much to you. We know that your efforts are not always appreciated or understood by your loved ones, but we know that your presence is a great gift and makes a difference, that you are known at the heart level. We hope that by practicing mindfulness and living in the moment, together with your loved one, that you find unexpected joys and peacefulness, great gifts to yourselves, as well as to those you love.
To learn more about the gift of presence, be sure to visit out site and register for the Dementia Dialogue Webinar.