Monday, 22 July 2013

Lessons Learned in the Dementia Ward

This awesome woman is my grandma. She’s almost ninety years old, loves music of any kind, and would probably beat me in a fist fight. She also has Alzheimer’s. She lives in the dementia ward. She doesn’t know my name, my dad’s—her son’s—name, or really anyone else’s name. She isn’t even aware that her husband has died.

Sounds like pretty cruddy circumstances, doesn’t it? To be honest, I often think it is. Every time I go to see her, it breaks my heart. I hate that she doesn’t know the love of those who cherish her most. I hate that she doesn’t remember the good times in life. I hate that she can’t communicate with us. Every time I have to leave her, it breaks my heart to see her watching me leave, and then know that in a few minutes she won’t even remember than anyone came to see her.  

But every time I see her, I’m reminded of another side of the story. She is happier than she’s been in a long time. Even in a home with a bunch of people of all crazy types, she is always singing. She smiles. She laughs. She does knuckles and thumbs up (thanks to her awesome grandchildren teaching her). Some people say that she’s simply gone back to a happy place in life. While that may be true, I think there’s more to that story.

I think that right now, with her mind completely out of her control, all that’s left to show is who she truly is. All she has to give is what’s been growing in her heart. And what’s coming out of her is happiness—joy. Not even Alzheimer’s disease—a sickness that strips you of the ability to perform even menial tasks by destroying your memory—can steal her joy. No mental disease can change who she truly is.

Now, my grandma has not had an easy life—far from it, and she has not handled every circumstance in the best way. When she was young, she was teased because she couldn’t hear properly. After she got married, she discovered that she couldn’t have children, which brought scorn from other women. Then, when her and my grandpa adopted my dad and his brother, she lived in a constant state of insecurity. My dad’s brother ended up leaving home at fourteen because he had some major issues resulting from being shuffled through the foster care system for years. My grandma lost one of her most valuable treasures, and then she always had to live in the fear of my dad being taken away by his birth father—who was just a downright mean guy. She was scared to show too much love to my dad because she knew that the more she loved him, the more it would hurt if he were taken away. When my dad was ready to get married, she was really mean to my mom. She realized that my mom was going to take my dad away—her worst fear was coming true. Then, as Alzheimer’s started to take root in her brain, she became very difficult for us to be around. Her mind was changing, and she had no control of this. It scared her, and she responded in the only way she knew how. She fought. She fought against anyone trying to help her. She fought against anyone who she thought was a threat. It took her years to finally be in the place that she is today.

Her journey has been a difficult one, but she has finally arrived at a place of peace in her mind. While it may seem like the mental disease has won, nothing could be further from the truth. I see others in her ward. People who are grumpy. People who are downright angry at the world. I see people who are literally vegetables. Then I see her. No, she doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t really know who anyone is. But she is still smiling and singing. She refused to give up the fight. She wouldn’t let a mental disease take away the very things that make her who she is.

There is something great in each one of us. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you. There is something unique and wonderful about you. This goes beyond your talents, or your perceived lack of talent. There is something so much greater than your amazing abilities in sports, academics or music. It’s the very core of you. It’s what’s buried under the crap that the world has thrown on you. If your mind were to shut down, you would probably lose all the talents that the world considers important, and all that would be left are the things you’ve been developing in your heart, whether it’s bitterness or the awesomeness that is you. There might be things that are trying to take your awesomeness away. Whether that is a mental disease, depression, a rotten friend, or horrible circumstances, you can’t give up. At the end of the day—at the end of your life—that uniqueness is what people are going to remember.

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