Sometimes you come across something that captures everything you want to say so brilliantly that it literally takes your breath away, and makes you weep in gratitude.
Sallie Tisdale’s article Out of time: the un-becoming of self, in the March 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is one of those somethings. It says in five pages what I have tried to articulate in the more than 600 pages on this blog, in workshops, webinars, conversations and comments, with mixed success as best. Yet Tisdale does it beautifully, succinctly and poetically.
Here are three important excerpts from her compelling piece:
“The stark fact is that dementia is incurable, progressive, and fatal, but here is the surprise: in the company of [people who live with dementia], one finds peace and unquestioned love in at least as much measure as in the rest of the world. I watch my clients navigate each day’s puzzling details. I know their efforts may look to many observers like an embarrassment of loss. I see the riches: the brave, vulnerable, completely human work of figuring things out. People with dementia sometimes have a rare entrancement with their surroundings, a simplicity of perception, a sense of wonder. Being with a person who has dementia is not that different from being with a person who doesn’t share your language. It is a little like talking to someone who has lost her tongue and cannot speak, has lost his hands and cannot write. This is not a bad thing; it is just a different thing. It requires a different kind of attention.”
“The fact that my own me-ness persists is obvious, and yet a persistence of identity is one of the last things we expect with [people who live with dementia]. They seem different to us; mustn’t they be different to themselves? The spate of recent research considering how a person with dementia actually feels tells us no, not really. People know they have a memory impairment, but they feel themselves to be the same person, even in late stages of the disease: “I’m like a slow-motion version of my old self,” says someone with dementia. The possibility of pleasure, let alone contentment, for this person is barely acknowledged. A team of researchers called our current vision of dementia the tragedy discourse. Another group notes that most researchers have shown “a stark disinterest in happiness,” and their assumption of distress is because that is “the only available lexicon for experience, the only available lens through which dementia is viewed.” Surveys have found that Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, and cancer are the diseases that people fear the most. The communal response to dementia seems to invite only existential despair.”
“Yet people with Alzheimer’s consistently rate their quality of life higher than their family members do. In a large international study, people with cognitive impairments were no less happy than healthy people. When family members are upset about a relative’s decline, certain it is a terrible experience, they are not always clear on who is suffering. My friend Kate’s mother had Alzheimer’s. She had always worn careful makeup, and she was uncomfortable leaving the house without it. But her makeup became exaggerated, almost clownish, and she refused Kate’s help. Looking in the mirror, she liked what she saw. Going out to a restaurant became, for Kate, “an exercise in my own discomfort, being willing to let her be as she was.”
The full article is here. I strongly encourage you to read it.