A wonderful former student of mine now works at a memory care community. A woman with Alzheimer’s, Angela, moved into the facility. To the rest of the world, Angela lost her husband to cancer about ten years ago. In Angela’s world, her husband had past away last week.
As you might expect with someone who lost the love of her life last week, she spent a lot of time crying. When asked to participate in activities, she said she wasn’t interested–because her husband passed away last week. She wouldn’t eat much. As with many individuals in grief, she had no appetite.
Some employees tried to convince Angela that her husband had been gone for ten years rather than a week. Instead of validating her feelings, the staff was telling her that her sadness wasn’t real. This only made her more upset.
After a few months, a new woman, Lou, moved into the memory care community. Lou also had Alzheimer’s. On her first day there, she found Angela crying in her room. Lou walked in, sat down, and asked Angela if she was okay. Angela explained that her husband had passed away last week. Lou gave her a hug. And they sat together most of the day. Angela talked about her life with her husband…their homes, their travels, their kids. Lou listened as someone does when their friend is struggling. She had no place to be and nothing to do. Her only focus was Angela.
The next day was nearly an exact replay of the day before. And so was the next day. And the next day. The staff was relieved that Angela had a friend. Lou’s family commented that Lou seemed to have more of a sense of purpose than she had in a long time. She felt needed in a way that she hadn’t felt needed since starting to show dementia symptoms. Sometimes life brings you the perfect friend at exactly the right time.
The staff assumed that Lou believed that Angela’s husband had passed away last week. While another person might tire of hearing the same stories about Angela’s husband every single day, Lou was hearing them for the first time. They thought that this was the value of their friendship–that Lou was a part of Angela’s reality. When another person might tire of expressing their sympathy day after day after day, Lou was doing it for the first time–every single day.
Or so they thought…
After about a month of friendship, Lou was on her way to Angela’s room when she told my former student, “I have to go see my friend. She thinks she lost her husband last week but he’s really been gone a long time. I feel so bad for the poor thing so I let her tell me the same stories day after day.”
“You know that her husband didn’t die last week?” my former student asked.
“Well, of course,” said Lou. “But I just keep showing up. It’s what friends do.”
Friends just keep showing up.
When I think of my own friends, I realize they are a lot like Lou. They keep showing up for me. I may not have dementia, but they do listen to me talk about the same issues over and over…and over. They are the themes of my life. And on this life journey, I realize that many of my issues are things that won’t ever truly be solved. They are issues that I must learn to cope with…sometimes by venting to my friends. And (my apologies, friends) I am sometimes like an Ipod on repeat, playing the same song continuously. When I consider the last ten years, I realize that I have the same redundant struggles. They just manifest themselves in different ways as my life changes. And yet my friends keep showing up. I do the same for them.
We are all like Angela in a way. We struggle, and we voice those struggles to those closest to us in an effort to be supported. It’s not a one time deal. Some of us complain about our jobs or our relationships. Some of us need to vent about parenting. We have persistent insecurities, weaknesses, and pet peeves. These are not things that we tell our friends about once and never again. They are continuous topics of conversation. If we didn’t care about our friends, we wouldn’t have the same conversations, with no resolutions, again and again. But we do it–because it’s what friends do.
Lou reminded me of something else that friends do. Lou didn’t try to tell Angela that her husband passed away ten years ago. She accepted Angela’s grief for what it was, and she never questioned whether Angela should feel sad or not. Angela felt sad, and Lou responded to Angela’s sadness. That’s all there was to it. We don’t judge whether our friends’ reasons for being upset are valid. That’s not our job. If our friend is upset, it’s our job to keep showing up…because that’s what friends do.
Maybe friendship inside Dementialand isn’t all that different from friendship outside Dementialand.