I went to the visitation for a friend with dementia recently. Despite the bummer circumstances, I was eager to meet his family for the first time and tell them how much I enjoyed my friend over our visits for the past several years.
I’m writing here that he was my “friend with dementia” because I want my story to make sense within the context of this blog post, but I really just thought of him as my friend. I looked forward to seeing him, and my interactions with him always put me in a better mood.
I remember that I once wore a dress when I visited with him. He looked me up and down and said, “You have nice legs.”
I told him that I run half-marathons. His response was that half-marathons were okay, but I shouldn’t run full marathons.
I asked him why I shouldn’t run full marathons. He looked at me as if this were the dumbest question ever asked.
After an exaggerated roll of the eyes, he said, “Too loooooong.”
So I’ll stick with half marathons at the suggestion of my friend.
Sometimes we talked about his challenges with movement and balance. Other times, he talked about how frustrated he was with not being able to be as independent as he had been in the past.
More than anything, we talked about other stuff… And he enjoyed talking about me more than he enjoyed talking about himself. My job. My husband. My job again. My shoes (especially if they were high heels). Always my hair. And, unlike my other friends, he always had honest feedback on my hair. Like the time he told me it looked like a hairball a cat coughed up. In all fairness, it really did. I got it cut a few days later.
He struggled with speech. Sometimes he didn’t make a lot of sense. Often he said things that were inappropriate. And still, my time with him was always the highlight of my day.
He was my friend.
After waiting about 20 minutes, I approached one of his family members at the visitation to explain who I was and what a difference he had made in my life.
He looked at me sadly and said, “I wish you had known him 12 years ago.”
I get that a lot.
You see, families are always telling me that I should have known their family members before. They tell me about all their loved one’s accomplishments and accolades (e.g., PTO president, city council, master’s degree, school counselor for 30 years). Then they look sadly at their loved one who is no longer able to brush their own teeth and say, “You would have really enjoyed her before.”
I want families to know that I don’t wish I had known your loved one before. I like the after just fine. When I am sitting with a person living with dementia, they are enough. No one has to prove to me that they are enough by giving me their resume. Here, in the moment, they are enough.
Last week, I took my adopted doggie, Carlos, to visit a memory care community in Wisconsin. It was a bit of an audition for him, and I’d say he passed. Many individuals were able to give Carlos a treat (so many that he had horrible gas that night) and pet him. Others weren’t in a place to be able to do that.
One woman living with dementia lit up when she saw Carlos. Carlos, always eager for pets if you make eye contact with him, hustled his furry self up to her wheelchair.
The woman’s daughter happened to be visiting, and she urged her mom (repeatedly), “Pet him, mom. You can pet the dog. Just pet him. He wants you to pet him.”
She was disappointed when her mom wasn’t able to reach out and pet Carlos.
I know it’s hard when a person who was previously able to do something is no longer able to do it. The daughter explained that her mother loved dogs and had owned many throughout her lifetime. In this moment, she saw loss. She saw a woman who previously provided care for dogs and was now unable to even pet one.
I didn’t see that loss. I saw a women who lit up when my little mutt approached her. It was enough for me. It made my heart full to see Carlos make her smile. It wasn’t enough for her daughter.
I’m not picking on families here….I have an advantage over families in appreciating the moment. When I look at someone with dementia, I don’t see the person that they used to be. I don’t see someone who used to be an eloquent professor but can no longer form a full sentence. I don’t see someone who was an accomplished hairstylist but can’t pick up a brush now. I don’t see someone who used to take care of everyone but now needs care.
I don’t see the loss. I see the person. When you don’t know the before, you don’t compare the before and the after. You just enjoy the after for what it is.