Recently, I met Cynthia and her mother, Frances. I was so inspired by their story and I wanted to share it with you.
Some people steal away to a day spa so they can slow down and relax. Others take a vacation or immerse themselves in a meditation retreat. Cynthia Robinson, age 61, didn’t have time for any of those options. It was 2010, and as she was trying to build her consulting practice, she realized her 88-year-old mother, who lived alone, had memory problems. When Cynthia took her mother to a neurologist, the diagnosis was mild cognitive impairment, which for many is a precursor to Alzheimer’s.
Cynthia was thrust into the role of primary caregiver.
“Initially, I felt irritated and a little resentful,” she said. “I loved my mother but I didn’t want caring for her to take up so much of my time.”
Deciding What Was Most Important In Life
Cynthia had to decide what was most important. Was it taking care of her mother or building her business? She analyzed her situation; her husband was retired and they could get by on his income.
“I knew I would regret it if I didn’t take care of Mom,” she said. She had another reason: she felt she could be at risk for Alzheimer’s. “I wanted to model caring behavior so my daughters and husband would know how to act if I ever developed this disease,” she said.
Cynthia wanted to think of ways her mom could feel valuable and really loved and she experimented with these concepts:
She slowed down to her mother’s pace. She didn’t bring her computer over to her mom’s house; she didn’t talk on her cell phone or check her emails and texts. “I tried to patiently experience my mom’s world,” she said.
Listen Lovingly and Learn
Even though she sometimes bit her lip in frustration as her mom endlessly repeated the same story, Cynthia practiced really listening to her mom’s tales.
“Once I did this, I heard stories I’d never heard before,” she said. “ I learned some meaningful family history.”
Experience the Sensory Beauty of the Present
“I had never paid attention to the millions of shades of bright green,” Cynthia said. “But Mom notices sensory things and we talk about the colors, the flowers and the trees. She keeps me in the here and now.”
Seek Interesting Solutions
Normally, Cynthia’s mom would never wear a hat. But her long hair was thinning and Cynthia bought her a cute cap. Her mom was delighted by the gift and whenever she wore it, she received compliments.
Find New Common Ground
Cynthia installed birdfeeders at her mom’s house. Enjoying the ever-changing array of birds increased her mom’s quality of life and gave them a new topic of conversation.
Delighting in Her Mother’s Gifts
The more Cynthia slowed down and stayed in the present with her mom, the more she appreciated her mother’s wisdom and serenity. Her mother repeatedly told her, “People are about as cheerful as they make up their minds to be.”
“ My mother once guided me through the experience of being a parent,” Cynthia said. “Now, she’s guiding me in the experience of how to make the best of Alzheimer’s.”
**Who are your unexpected guides? What fascinating lessons are you learning on your journey?
“There’s the frog. There’s the ladybug.” My two year old grandson Robert is pointing excitedly to a green plastic frog poised to devour a plastic ladybug. The sun illuminates the spider web that stretches across my neighbor’s small front yard pond and waterfall, a fasicinating place that Robert avidly visits every time he comes over.
Robert never tires of discussing the various frogs, lizards, giant ants, snakes and butterflies that our neighbor has carefully placed around his pond’s perimeter. We count the lizards and marvel at the new scary black spider. We notice the bubbles as the water cascades down its rocky slope and we marvel at the large frog that’s taking a shower. One miniature yellow frog perches across the pond on a flat rock while a turtle bathes serenely several rocks up.
Although they are seemingly inanimate objects, under Robert’s vivid scrutiny they come to life. Each time, we notice something different and we admire something familiar. Each time Robert visits, I can’t wait to go to the waterfall with him.
Noticing Can Lead to Understanding
Robert intuitively knows something that I had to struggle to learn: just noticing and speaking aloud the details can lead to understanding and admiration.
One summer, Ron and I went on a spiritual retreat and the teacher gave us this exercise. “Go on a noticing walk,” he told us. “Take turns simply reporting out loud on what you see.”
At first, it seemed silly and awkward to say, “I see a red barn,” or “I see a mica rock.” But after about ten minutes, our noticing became more natural. As we reported the sights, the intricacy and important importance of each object seemed to sink into us. We walked more slowly, eager to appreciate our environment.
Using Awareness on the Caregiver’s Journey
Years later, when my mother was deep into Alzheimer’s, I remembered that walking exercise and decided to use it on a visit to her.
At first, I felt an emotional charge as I walked up to the Memory Care Unit and “noticed” the keypad that let me into the area, a keypad that symbolized the locked unit, the loss of freedom, the decline of my mother. I had to take a breath and remind myself, “This exercise isn’t about symbology; this is simply an observational experience.”
My mom was asleep when I reached her room and I sat down and began quietly looking at her. I noticed her silver curly hair. “I see pink fingernails,” I murmured. “I see a woman wearing a navy blue sweatshirt.” I slowed myself down and noted the details of the room, each one interesting in its own right. By the time my mother stretched and awakened, I was right there, grounded by the simple act of noticing, ready to look into her eyes and meet her wherever she was. The awareness exercise had slowed me down and opened me up.
Take Ten and Appreciate
What can you more deeply appreciate through noticing? It’s fun to take ten minutes and just report to yourself on the objects around you. It’s even more fun to do this with someone. And if you’re lucky enough to have a child and a pond, get ready for a delightful experience.