There is an old saying that I have learned to live by. “Just control the controllables.” I realize that I cannot change the inevitability of my mother-in-law’s decline through the stages of dementia. Despite my innumerable efforts, I always return to the realization that I can only control small moments within the confines of her ever-shrinking world. No heroic act or incredible epiphany will propel Nan back in time to who she once was. At the end of the day, as with most life experiences, all I can control is my attitude.
I am the filter through which Nan sees the world. My moods and behaviors influence how she interprets everything in her life. If I strive to be kind, she will know that she is loved. If I appear strong and in control, she will know she is safe. If I choose to be positive, I will show her there is hope.
Admittedly, at first it was difficult to maintain a positive outlook. I worked hard to remain optimistic, but sometimes her unstable behavior was too much to bear and a kind of helpless depression would overtake me. Those were hard days that brimmed with anger and resentment, and all I could do was walk away and begin again later.
No matter how hard you try, no positive approach leads you in a straight line. Instead, it ebbs and flows as the circumstances of dementia change. During these difficult times, you must take a breath and value all that you have achieved up until this point. Don’t compare your loved one’s behavior against how they behaved yesterday, or how you hope that they will conduct themselves tomorrow. Instead, try to remain calm and give yourself credit for all the positive changes that you have been able to facilitate. Remember, this situation is never solved and its future will always remain uncertain.
Typically when I am feeling especially negative, it is because I have been focusing on the symptoms of the disease, rather than working to counterbalance its hold on Nan. It occurs when I am once again interpreting her actions in the context of who she used to be. It occurs when I forget that nothing in life is permanent and that we don’t have to understand everything that is happening around us in order to find happiness.
The reality is that there will be times when you feel sad and hopeless. There will be days when you want to walk away. This is when you have to mentally grab hold of yourself and deliberately change the thoughts that are running through your mind. Sometimes I redirect my thoughts by saying affirming statements out loud. Sometimes a good night’s sleep does the trick. Sometimes I go for a walk to clear my mind, go to dinner with a friend, or engage in an activity that I enjoy. I give myself permission to rest physically and emotionally. I remind myself that there is an entire universe outside the world of dementia.
Over time if you decide to remain positive it will become a habit. Yes, I said decide. For even with a diagnosis as horrific as dementia there are truths worth celebrating. And once I decided to open my eyes to all that remains possible, I began to see a multitude of tiny miracles swirling around Nan. I have witnessed more spontaneous demonstrations of kindness, understanding, and spirit-filled behavior than I can count. I didn’t notice them at first. I had to learn to pay attention in order to see them. And to think that they were there all along, hiding behind the distractions of my daily life, just waiting to be detected and appreciated. Even in the advanced stages of her disease, there is so much to celebrate about Nan’s life…….and your loved one’s too.