I was inspired to write this after reading an article by a nurse who witnessed the use of the Clock Test, a simple diagnostic evaluation that is used by psychologists as a screening tool to assess a patient for dementia. The nurse’s job exposes her to the patients who undergo these tests, and she expresses real sadness at having to watch as people who were once mentally agile, struggle to understand and follow simple instructions. What hurts this nurse even more, is having to observe these vulnerable aged people when they reach a point where they barely have any recognition of themselves or their family members. She perceives something dreadful occurring before her eyes; she sees a loss of the personality, a loss of personal dignity and feels helpless in the face of such encounters. Dementia is a deeply painful experience for family members to witness in their loved ones, since they are enduring the gradual departure of a personality they have loved, and often the process is accompanied by dangerous (mostly to themselves), erratic behaviours that require that the patient be under constant observation. I’ve seen this phenomenon in my own elderly family members, but have a completely different view of the situation.
This post is not about dementia itself, although I use it as a reference; rather, it is about looking at such conditions from different viewpoints and questioning our current beliefs in order to reduce our suffering. And to look at life from a different perspective, we have to acknowledge that our current view is limited by both our unexplored beliefs, and by our refusal to wake up and observe life for what it really is. From the moment we are born, beliefs are foisted upon us. This is not always a bad thing. We need certain beliefs to give structure and purpose to our existence. Without these beliefs we wouldn’t exist. What limits us, what makes us suffer, is our continued adherence to beliefs that clearly bring pain into our human experience.
My experience has shown me that when we suffer over anything, it is because we are looking through the lens of a belief that has no truth to it. Life is not meant to be painful; it is our beliefs that make it so. A lot of other people suffer pain because they believe that these dementia patients are losing something, yet most are in advanced age, and are clearly in transition from this life to the next. Why do I say they are clearly in transition? Because I have observed it, and read a lot of other accounts of people who have experienced the same thing with their own relatives. Over time, I have developed the habit of challenging popular belief, and when it came to my experience with dementia, I didn’t believe the widely-held idea that my own family members were losing their faculties or losing their dignity. I witnessed (because I closely observed the things they were saying and doing) that something entirely different was happening. I saw that they had transferred their point of focus from this world to another, that they were preparing for something new. In watching and listening to my family members, and without being influenced by ideas of them being ‘mentally ill’, there appeared to be a period of time in which they were undergoing some sort of life review. In the confusion of being in the still-living physical body and their point of focus being elsewhere, they would wander off to visit their childhood friends (long-dead), and as a result, end up lost and disoriented as they were rescued by neighbours. They would also begin talking to people they had known years before, people who were not even in the room with those of us sitting there. Doctors would say they were ‘hallucinating’, but I’ve learned that this is just a term they use because they have little understanding of how human beings are able to actually interact with other dimensions of reality.
My transitioning family members would not recognize me or their closest relatives. Sometimes they would become violent; I felt they were revisiting some painful past moment in which some aspect of themselves had to be resolved. They would be rude and act in some offensive manner, to my mind re-playing an ancient confrontation. Often they would get depressed, since in my experience depression can sometimes be an indicator that change is ahead, and the patient not yet ready to confront transition. If we view dementia from this perspective, it is certainly easy to see how people in this condition could be shifting from one world to the next. It explains just why they are no longer functioning in this world.
There exist many native cultures the world over that refer to dementia as a state in which the person’s spirit has partially transitioned to the other world, and the body remaining until the time to fully vacate arrives. I saw this myself with an aunt who was making her transition through dementia. The ‘delay’ is attributed to the intricate nature of family relationships. Sometimes there is something for all family members to learn in the process. Sometimes some family members have trouble letting go of the person with dementia, or the patients themselves are afraid of the journey ahead, and need time to transition. In native cultures, it is the caregiver’s job to take care of the body until the patient is ready to leave. This is a sacred undertaking wherein the caregiver feels privileged to be close to the world of spirit and the entire situation is considered to be a highly regarded, deeply spiritual position for the whole family to find themselves in.
I felt sad when I read the Clock Test article, because the author is a woman who cares deeply about people. I want her, and especially people who are dealing with family members with dementia, to shift their viewpoint for a moment, and give themselves pause to question their current beliefs. Mostly, I’d like people who are currently suffering in their lives, to ask themselves what belief it is that is causing them to feel the way that they do. It isn’t an easy process, and the pain doesn’t leave us overnight. But to embark on the journey of questioning everything we believe in, is the beginning of the critical process of awakening to the truth about life.