There is a prevailing view that when someone is told that they have dementia, everything in their life must stop. If they were working or studying that must stop. They must stop driving. They stop being spoken to and start being spoken about. They stop being given tasks to do, or even being allowed to complete simple tasks that they feel comfortable tackling.
Any deviation from this is considered to be a lack of compliance, but since when did people with dementia have to become compliant? Being told you have a terminal illness is likely to make most people want to become as incompliant as possible. A diagnosis of many other terminal illnesses is often associated with the formation of a bucket list, a compendium of all the things someone wants to achieve, all the places they want to visit and all the people they want to meet. Not with dementia though.
We expect people with dementia to just crawl home and stay there until potentially a medical emergency brings them into contact with their local hospital. Then they will encounter the giant beast that is healthcare, followed by social care, followed by huge confusion and frustration for a person who is likely to already be hugely confused and frustrated due to their dementia.
So is this mismanagement on a grand scale or just a fact of life? Personally I don’t think this reality is right for anyone. No one is likely to live well with dementia if their life is reduced to a model of isolated dependence, where joy and happiness is in short supply and irritation and depression are the daily norm.
I’ve written previously about the need for everyone with dementia to be given the opportunity to achieve, and that can be achievement at every stage of dementia. You may associate achievement with hitting huge milestones and pushing yourself to extremes – for someone with dementia it may be something as simple as making a cup of tea or buttering some bread, but it’s achievement, it is an element of self-sustainability and it’s priceless.
I lost count of the young doctors who saw my dad during his 19 years with dementia and questioned the point of treating a man who a) had a terminal disease, b) was immobile (as dad was for many years), c) doubly incontinent, d) had a swallowing problem (for the last four years of his life) and e) apparently in their narrow-minded judgement, had no quality of life whatsoever.
He did, in fact, have quality of life, just not what most people with limited understanding of dementia perceive to be quality of life. He enjoyed his food and had an amazing appetite. He loved listening to music and would sing along. He rested peacefully and relaxed with simple pleasures. He looked forward to going outside and would snooze in the sun under his panama hat. He was emotionally alert and showed that when he saw the people he cared about. He was loved and showed love to those he cared for. All of these things represent quality of life.
My dad had that, however, in spite of the systems that try to wrench this away from people with dementia. Systems that want to dehumanise and disempower people with dementia, pretty much from the earliest point in their dementia to their last breaths at the end of their life. My dad had quality of life because he had a family. How many people don’t have an actively involved family or indeed any family at all? Relatives have been known to run for the hills when they hear that a member of their family had developed dementia (some fearing that it is, in fact, contagious).
My dad’s world could easily have stopped. I’m sure on some days it did, no one in our family would claim to be a superman or woman – none of us were capable of removing every negative feeling and experience from the life of my dad, however much we tried. That is, however, the point: we did at least try.
For us the world didn’t stop, it kept on turning. Yes it was different, but life doesn’t stand still. It can happen around a person with dementia, or we can all make a conscious decision to ensure that person is part of their world. Indeed, to give someone the best chance of living well with dementia nothing needs to ever really stop. Yes they may not be able to carry on with a particular type of work or hobby, but there is no reason not to try something else that they enjoy, or indeed something new.
If paid employment is out of the question, volunteer, campaign and spread the word. Talk about your experiences; I guarantee that there will be people who want to hear about them – I definitely do. Driving a car may not be possible, but look into every other form of transport and make sure that you are getting out and about regularly. Tasks may need some supervision occasionally, but as observers we should never jump in to ‘correct’ unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent harm. It’s ok to do things ‘wrong’ – it’s better to have tried, experimented and come up with something unique, than to have sat back and decided that you can never do anything ever again and it’s time to just give up and admit dementia has won.
Throughout history the most innovative people have often been incompliant – the mainstream wasn’t for them, and they set about putting their own mark on the world. In many ways, I’m hugely incompliant and actually proud of it. Facing up to a future with dementia may be terrifying, but let it also be liberating. Make your bucket list and don’t let your world stop – it’s far harder to start again than it is to just keep going.
Until next time…