When you’re caring for a loved one who’s living with dementia, it’s easy to see what’s wrong. What’s frustrating, irritating, painful. What causes grief. What prompts resentment. The moment when guilt arises.
During some of the harder phases of my seven or so years of caring for my dad, bad days started bad and just got worse.
I’d wake up exhausted, again.
I’d make coffee, but I’d need to tend to my dad and wouldn’t have a chance to drink that desperately needed coffee until it was cold.
Tired, uncaffeinated, grumpy about whatever minor interruption had taken place, I’d stub my toe. Or bang my elbow against a doorframe. Or I’d be hurrying, and I’d trip over my dad’s cane.
That just confirmed what I already knew: the whole day was shot.
And sure enough, the day that started off on the wrong foot would just get worse and worse, until I’d find myself falling into bed already dreading the next day.
That wasn’t always how my days went, but when I had one of those days, it seemed to kick off a cycle—quite possibly because when I’d wake up the next morning, I’d already be alert and watching for a sign that yep, it was going to be another bad day.
At some point, a couple of years into active caregiving, I began to notice that how I was feeling would affect how my dad and I interacted.
If I was irritable, even if I tried to cover it, he’d pick up on my irritation and mirror it back to me.
If I was grieving, fighting back tears, he would soften, become solemn, and physically droop like a flower deprived of water.
And if I was having a good day, if I came into his room humming and smiling and ready to play, he’d meet that mood as well. Not always, but often enough that I noticed.
Having spent my twenties and thirties watching Oprah and then later studying positive psychology as a part of a coaching certification program, I knew that research had shown that a gratitude practice could improve resilience, physical and psychological health, enhance empathy, and more.
And so I decided to try an experiment, in which I’d list five things I was grateful for before even getting out of bed. My hope was that by starting with gratitude, I’d avoid encountering the negative first thing in the morning, and I might even build up a reserve of goodness to combat whatever difficulty might come my way.
Some days, gratitude came easy. I could rejoice that a friend had brought us dinner the night before, that my dad called my by name, that my favorite rosebush was blooming.
On other days, I had to stretch to find five things I could be grateful for. I had to resort to things that I routinely take for granted and, without this practice, wouldn’t pause to be grateful for them. That the sun had risen. That I could sleep in a warm, comfortable bed. For the soft, flickering of a candle.
As I went through this experiment, I discovered that whether my gratitudes were of the more dramatic kind or noting the day-to-day pleasures that I might otherwise have missed, my mood lifted. I was aware that even on the hardest days, I could find something to be grateful for.
I was more likely to hum—especially if my gratitudes had included the joy of music. I was slower to get frustrated.
And because of that magical, mystical energetic mirroring that I’d observed between my mood and my dad’s, when I felt better, he would often interact with me differently, in ways that felt better for both of us.
This gratitude practice was so powerful and became so engrained in me that I continue it even now, nearly four years after my dad’s death.
Each week, I host The Purple Sherpa Family Gathering as Facebook Live, and I always start by inviting participants to list five things (or at least one) that they’re grateful for.
Because when we know we’re going to have to list our gratitudes, we’re more likely to look for what’s good.
And when we look, we find.
When we see the good, we realize that no matter how difficult the days may be, even the bad days have good in them.
My invitation to you: right now (really, right now!) grab a pen and a piece of paper or open a notes app on your phone and list five things you’re grateful for today.
Don’t make this hard. Gratitude doesn’t require your heart to crack open with emotion. Just look for what’s good in your life in this moment, and write it down.
Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next.
Notice what happens: how you feel, how you and your loved one interact. Watch for subtle shifts.
After sharing this practice with hundreds of dementia family care-partners and caregivers, I’m comfortable predicting that if you consistently seek and identify your gratitude, you’ll feel better and you’ll see improved interactions with your loved one, whether that means a better connection despite garbled verbal communication or experiencing that moment of connection when a brief glance conveys the love you share.
This practice won’t change the course of your loved one’s dementia, but it just might change the way that you both experience the journey.
Author: Julie Fleming
Julie provided love & care for her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in the fall of 2011 and with vascular dementia in 2014, until he died in 2017. And she had to learn it all the hard way. Sound familiar?
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