If it wasn’t a big deal, why was she telling me about it?
She said that having to cancel lunch with a friend because her husband (who was living with Alzheimer’s) was having awful anxiety was no big deal.
She said that her friend could stop by later. That she wasn’t that thrilled with the restaurant (Olive Garden) her friend picked anyway. That she had gone out for lunch with another friend a few days ago. She even made a joke about her weight and said maybe not going out for lunch is best.
Again, she said it was no big deal.
But here I am at this conference chatting with a family care partner who sought me out. We probably have about four minutes until I have to get to the next session.
In this limited time, she’s not talking to me about financial care planning or her husband’s diagnosis or her worry that one day he will walk out the front door and be lost forever.
She hasn’t told me about her feeling of disconnectedness within her marriage or how her kids are in denial that their father has a progressive disease.
She’s telling me she had to cancel lunch with her friend.
It’s a big deal.
I said, “I’m so sorry you couldn’t go to lunch with your friend.”
I said it with the sincerity I would say, “I’m sorry your husband died, ” or “I am so sorry to hear about this diagnosis.”
I really was sorry, and I felt for her. She had to give up something that was important to her. We’ve all been there–whether due to dementia or other life circumstances. It’s hard when you aren’t able to do what you want to do. We’re allowed to be upset about that.
She nodded and said, “Thanks but it’s no big deal. I mean, there was worse things.”
Of course there are worse things. There are always worse things. I’d have nothing to talk about in life if we were only allowed to complain about the things that are truly the worst.
Just because something is not the absolute worst thing to ever happen in the history of world does not mean it’s not difficult. And it doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. As I sit here right now, I am declaring a new life rule–YOU GET TO DECIDE WHAT IS A BIG DEAL IN YOUR OWN LIFE. And you don’t have to apologize for what is a big deal in your life at any particular moment.
People living with dementia and care partners often tell me about some of the challenges in their lives and say then follow up by implying those challenges are small and insignificant.
Sometimes I get confused when I’m getting ready in the morning and trying to figure out what’s the toothpaste and what’s the deodorant and the hairspray. But that’s just a small thing.
I can’t do my crafts downstairs anymore because he comes down and needs my attention a lot. I know people have it worse. At least he’s home. I can deal with not crafting.
I want to make the same stuff I always make for dinner but now stuff tastes different to him and he won’t eat what I make. I am stuck making pasta every night because he says other stuff is gross. But I don’t want to complain. Pasta is okay.
I used to be able to sew but now it’s just frustrating because of Alzheimer’s so I gave up. It’s not the end of the world.
I’m guilty of saying something isn’t a big deal when it is, in fact, a big deal to me. I’ve been known to go on a monologue complaining about a problem or talking about a difficult situation. Then I tell everyone it’s not a big deal and dismiss it.
Elaine, why would you go on diatribe if it’s really no big deal to you?
And I say the same thing to those of you who reach out to tell me about challenges but then downplay those challenges because they are no big deal.
It’s okay for something to be a big deal. And it’s okay to say it’s a big deal. You realize that it is not a big deal to everyone in the world and that maybe it won’t be a big deal forever, but it’s a big deal right now. Sure, maybe you’ll get over it. Maybe you won’t even remember it in a year. That doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal right here in this moment.
It doesn’t make you self-centered or whiny. It just makes you a human being.
So care partners…I know the world expects you to be upset when your loved one is diagnosed, forgets your name, or passes away. Those are big deals, but please know that there are other moments that might seem inconsequential to others that are big deals to you. Stop telling me the things that are bothering you aren’t big deals because those things matter, too. Stop minimizing the loss you feel when you can’t go to Olive Garden with your friend. It’s loss. Loss is a big deal.
To the care partner who had meltdown in front of me because her husband could no longer handle the recycling and had thrown out a lot of plastic silverware. Maybe it’s not entirely about the recycling. Or maybe you’re really environmentally-conscious and it is. Either way, you’re struggling with it and it’s important.
And for my friends living with dementia…I’m looking at you as well. You deal with many challenges. Some of you are thriving. Some of you are struggling. I’d say quite a few of you are thriving and struggling even at the same time. Sometimes when I talk to you I hear you dismissing frustrating pieces of dementia as if they don’t matter. Your friends leave, but you tell me it’s fine because now you know who really cares. Your wife won’t let you mow the yard, but you say it’s okay because it’s too hot out there anyway. You can’t volunteer at the humane society anymore because you don’t have the energy. That’s loss. Loss is a big deal.
If you are struggling with something, that thing matters. Maybe it won’t matter so much tomorrow. Maybe it won’t matter in ten minutes. But right now…it’s a big deal. Stop telling me it’s not.
I don’t believe you anyway.