Some years ago, when my mom was diagnosed with dementia, I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this journey. I felt very alone, even though I had a beautiful network of friends. I turned to writing to help me make sense of the situation. Eventually, I gathered the courage to share my personal essays with others, often through simply reading my stories aloud to friends and family. Being able to share my thoughts and feelings on this deeply meaningful dementia experience was so therapeutic, and it inspired me to reach out to other caregivers. Through my years as a family caregiver and through interviewing dozens of caregivers and experts in the field of dementia, I gleaned these 7 tips for reducing caregiver isolation.
When my friend Karen asked me to tell her more about my mom’s life, I was thrilled. I had been so immersed in my caregiving responsibilities, I had forgotten Mom’s fascinating adventures as a nurse in WWII, her worldwide travels, and more. Simply asking questions about the person who is living with dementia and listening avidly to the stories is a gift to the caregiver.
“Your mother is so interesting,” my friend Jane said. Jane had offered to simply come to my house and have a short visit with me and Mom. My mother was going through a period of repetition and I had heard her tale of the natural hot springs in Iceland at least 113 times. But watching Jane lean forward, ask cogent questions, and smile at Mom allowed me to appreciate Mom’s stories in a new way. These were cornerstones in my mother’s life and Jane’s interest reminded me what treasures they were.
Mom had been a vibrant movie-goer, an avid opera lover, and an ardent museum enthusiast. But when she could no longer go out, I loved it when people offered to bring arts, culture, and the occasional dog, to us. Studies show that even indirect contact with animals reduces stress. Visits from small dogs and cuddly babies boosted both our spirits and helped us feel connected with our community.
Bringing over an art book and gazing at favorite painters together invited out the creative spirit and were a catalyst for open-ended conversation. Singing and playing music with others stirred up positive memories and filled us with happiness and well-being.
So often, caregivers forget the power of fresh air and exercise. They forget the joy of sunshine and trees. When they don’t have the steam to set out on their own, offering to take them on a stroll, a run, to a yoga class, or just to sit on a bench in a park, can offer moments of connection and renewal.
“What can I do for you?” my life-partner often asked. Frequently, I was so overwhelmed I had no answer. So he asked me concrete questions. “Do you need any errands run?” “Would you like me to make dinner?” “Are there phone calls I can help you make? Grocery shopping I can do?” Offering to do simple tasks helped me understand I did not have to soldier through this alone. Help was all around me and one of my spiritual journeys was learning how to receive it.
It’s not always easy to stay connected with friends who are living with dementia and their caregivers, but it is so worth it. Even when my mother felt lost at social gatherings, she still enjoyed the energy of being around empathetic friends. Even when she didn’t understand every speck of conversation, she relished being around others and meeting new people. So did my father and so did I. Having friends reach out with invitations reminded us we were still part of our community.
Sometimes we don’t know what to say to our friends who are caregivers for those living with dementia. We don’t know what to do. Then it’s time to simply state the truth and tell them, “I want to be there for you, to understand what you’re going through. I want to support you, and I don’t quite know how to do it. Can you guide me?”
Chances are the answer will be a warm hug and a resounding, “Yes.”
Are there things you know that will make your life better and easier, and yet you can’t figure out how to incorporate them into your routine?
One of my key omissions is meditation and silence. That’s why I was very excited when I interviewed Sarah McLean, author of Soul Centered: Transform Your Life with 8 Weeks of Meditation. McLean’s father had dementia and she understands how difficult it can be to offer yourself those few moments of silence.
For McLean, the silence has been an important part of her spiritual and personal growth.
“By practicing silence, we explore our intuition and our connection to the divine,” McLean says. “When I sit quietly, I become more aware of my own thoughts and I notice the habits that keep me from seeing the beauty in life,”
McLean offers these simple tips for inviting mindful silence into your life.
Wake up with awareness.
Give yourself a slice of silence for the first five minutes of your morning. Avoid instant connections to people, TV, radio or Internet.
When possible, walk outdoors. Listen to the sounds and feel the stillness.
Enjoy a Silent Snack
For one meal or snack a day, turn off all noise and eat in silence. Be present with the taste of your food.
Practice Silence by Listening
Being a listener is a great way to start practicing silence. Wait until you are moved to speak; don’t compulsively fill up the quiet.
Practice Silence with Your Loved One Who Has Dementia
McLean wrote this after a visit with her father:
“There seemed to be nothing I could say to relate to him and to jar his memory. One day, I sat with him and meditated. Somewhere during my meditation, I had the thought to open my eyes to be sure he was all right. I was surprised to see him sitting up, alert, bright eyed, and smiling. He looked blissful and joyous. I closed my eyes and continued to meditate. When I left that day, I felt as if I had connected with him, and he with me for the first time in years. As a meditation teacher, I was amazed that it had taken me this long to think to do this. I visited him a few more times in December and early January and meditated, and felt fulfilled again and again. “
By adding in those moments of silence, you’re inviting more joy, fulfillment, inspiration, and connection.
Along with her 25 year meditation practice, Sarah McLean has explored world spiritual and cultural traditions: she’s been a 2-year resident in a Zen Buddhist monastery, lived in an ashram in India, taught English to Tibetan Buddhist nuns, bicycled along the silk route through Pakistan, meditated in temples in Thailand and Japan, and trekked the Golden Triangle in Asia. She worked with Deepak Chopra for eight years as the Program Director of the Chopra Center for Well Being. Sarah McLean is passionate about teaching and sharing what she’s discovered about the modalities of mind/body health, self-awareness and her spiritual journey. Endorsed by Deepak Chopra and featured in The New York Times, Sarah is the founding director of the McLean Meditation Institute in Sedona, Arizona, which offers meditation classes, retreats and teacher certification courses. www.McLeanMeditation.com.