Dementia, Living in the Moment, and Finding Peace in the Now

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I have a complicated relationship with living in the moment.

I work hard to feel at peace with being in the present, but my brain fights me.

I think about the past a lot. Something dumb I said at a meeting a few weeks back. A mistake I made in college.

And I think about the future a lot. Whether I should pursue an opportunity at work (that hasn’t yet been offered to me). When I will get the COVID vaccine. Whether or not my dog will be alive at this time next year.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re supposed to learn from the past and we are supposed to plan for the future. But where does the present fit in? Is there enough room for the present when you focus on the past and future?

In an effort to promote some sort of (spiritual, emotional, psychological?) growth, I started meditating in the fall. I am certain not a meditation guru. I paid for a subscription to the Calm App. I was doing it a lot. Then a bit less. And now a bit more again.

I try to wipe my mind clean of thoughts of the past and future when I meditate. I’m typically unsuccessful. I’m such a novice at meditation that I consider it a success if I finish the meditation the app prescribes for me, even if my mind is all over the place. I’m not sure that my growth has been tremendous, but it’s nice to have a short time during my day when I don’t respond to work emails or phone calls.

I’ve heard that depression means you are living in the past–regretting and ruminating. And anxiety means you are living in the future–fearing what might happen. This would mean that to ward off depression and anxiety you have to find a way to live in the present. I would argue that people who are able to focus on the moment they are in and appreciate it for its beauty are likely to be just…happier.

Have you ever had a moment in life where you look around and feel like you are exactly where you are supposed to be in that moment? You’re not thinking about where you are coming from. You aren’t thinking about where you are going. You are just there.

Being with people living with dementia has made me more conscious of living in the moment. As dementia progresses….and you can’t remember the past and you don’t have the ability to plan for the future…where does that leave you? You could say it leaves you ungrounded and purposeless, but in another way, it leaves you right where we should all be—in the moment.

I am not saying that people with dementia don’t have anxiety about the future, and of course it is only those who are in end stage dementia that completely lose the ability to plan. And even if people with dementia can’t remember what they had for breakfast they may be able to easily recall the Reagan era. But as dementia progresses, the window of time people live in becomes more and more limited.

In a strange way, I am trying to limit the window of time that I live in as well. I am trying to live where I am at–instead of where I was or where I might be going. A friend of mine lived a few months with her husband in a minimally conscious state. We often talked about her future…and I’m not sure I’ve ever spent time with someone whose future was so uncertain. She talked about how you can’t live moments that haven’t happened yet, so she lived in the present. It was amazing.

I will never forget overhearing a woman in a nursing home being asked by an employee, “What did you do in activities this morning?”

“I don’t remember,” she responded. “But I’m sure it was fun.”

And she was probably right. It probably was fun. But if it wasn’t, it’s better to think it was, right?

And the time I asked a guy with dementia, “So what did you do for a living?”

He paused for a few seconds and then looked at me with a grin.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think it matters.”

Then he asked me what I did for a living.

“I don’t think it matters,” I responded.

In that moment, it really didn’t matter. We were just two people who happened to be spending time together in the moment. Our backgrounds didn’t matter. Perhaps there wasn’t a need to focus on where we were coming from. The important thing was that we were sitting next to each other on a couch in that moment.

Do you ever feel like life puts you in a position to learn what you need to learn? Being around those with dementia has done that for me. I need to learn to live in the moment. And I’m working at it.

Now back to the Calm app.

7 Comments

  1. Love this, Elaine. Learning to live more in the moment is one of the many blessings that has come from caring for my mom. Being able to appreciate and often capture tiny moments of happiness each day–even when I knew they wouldn’t last or be remembered–was such an amazing unexpected blessing.

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  2. This is what I needed just now. Made me remember good memories of my mom, who passed away last July. One of the most special memories that I have of my mom during her last years with dementia was her ability to live in the moment. She didn’t care or worry about the past or the future, and was just happy to see me each time I visited. I frequently remember her joyful, smiling greeting of “Hi Becky! Hi Becky! Hi Becky!” (always three times), her waving me over to sit beside her on the couch. She was always so happy to see me, so welcoming, I felt so loved. I miss her so much. Thank you, Elaine, your writings helped me to appreciate my mom’s dementia, and enjoy my mom as she was, in the moment, instead of grieving for what she had been, in the past.

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  3. GREAT words! My husband, Ken, lives only in the moment. He watches MLB and college basketball. (He’s a graduate of University of Kansas). He focuses on baskets and hits, not the score.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sharon, my husband and I are also KU grads (and still live in Lawrence) so KU basketball is super important in our house too. 🙂

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