This morning I learned of the death of the father of one of Melissa’s lifelong friends. Chris and Melissa have known each other since childhood. Melissa provided guidance to Chris in recent years as he and his family dealt with health and end of life issues related to his father. These included those issues related to cognitive decline and to dementia, issues which Melissa and I have gotten to know too well. With Chris, and many others, we have discussed this phase of life and commiserated about the horrible nature of this process. Many people with dementia experience a decline in their communication skills. With my mother, it involves her inability to communicate clearly with words that make sense to those listening. She is generally unable to answer questions though she does still ask some basic ones. I can tell when she is trying to explain something. Sadly, she seems to know the words coming out of her mouth do not convey what she is trying to say. Sometimes Melissa can interpret what she is saying better than I can. Because communicating with her is difficult, I have had several of her friends tell me they do not know how to visit with her, so they don’t. Chris’ dad stopped speaking. This is not uncommon for those with dementia and those who have trouble visiting with someone like my mom have as much trouble as the incapacitated person in that scenario, if not more. So, Melissa counseled Chris to deal with the communication issue by holding his dad’s hand, hugging him, putting an arm around him and carrying on a monologue, instead of a dialog. Tell stories, relate family events, even without knowing if his father was comprehending these things. I do the same with my mother, and I have told her friends this as well to encourage them to visit her – tell her things. I spend considerable time showing her photographs and explaining them (this probably doesn’t surprise readers of these posts who know my interest in photography). Don’t expect a response. Maybe you’ll get a smile. It is the contact and attention that matter in providing as positive a quality of life as possible. Coincidentally, I was cleaning my desk today when I came across a tiny piece of paper – the contents of a fortune cookie from who knows when. It says “Talk not of wasted affections; affection is never wasted.” A very wise statement when related to the very difficult times in life such as these. Rest peacefully John. And, to the family, may your fond memories bring you peace and joy.
The power of human touch cannot be underestimated. Pioneering psychological research, conducted by Dr. Harry Harlow and his colleagues, beginning in the 1930s, established that physical contact is an essential part of human development. Although Dr. Harlow’s studies were primarily focused on the establishment of a bond between mothers and their offspring, it is well known among social scientists that the need to form a human connection remains throughout the life span. People such as David’s mother, and Chris’ dad who live in the sterile environment in nursing homes, often long for human companionship. Sometimes, the simplest act of touching someone, holding her hand, hugging him warmly, and placing an arm around her shoulders while talking is all it takes to form a connection with someone who suffers from dementia or another form of incapacitation. In addition to touching and, of course, smiling, it is important to never forget that people who suffer from psychological and/or physical maladies are people, just like the rest of us, and, just like the rest of us, they deserve to be treated with respect. If someone, such as my dear friend Chris’ dad, or my wonderful mother-in-law, Carole, is unable to respond to touching, smiling, and conversation, it doesn’t mean these actions are unnoticed or unappreciated. The fact that someone cannot reciprocate one’s acts of kindness and affection are irrelevant. My friend, Chris, explained that he was unsure about whether his dad understood what he was being told, however, he noticed that, every time he was with his dad, his dad had a smile on his face. This counts for something! Neither David nor I are particularly fond of “small talk,” however, we always think of nice things to share with his mom. Carole and I share a love of cats, butterflies, flowers, and other beautiful things, and I never run out of topics to discuss with her or photos to show her. Often, she shows no indication of processing what I am telling or showing her, but once in a while, the “old Carole,” whom I love and consider among my best friends, emerges and she smiles and tells me she loves me. Chris and his dad had a strong bond, one I admired since the day I met Chris in 1967. His dad, John, for whom Chris’ son is named, was a person who treated me with respect, even when I was a child. I have fond memories of times spent with Chris and his family, including times his dad initiated thought provoking discussions about current events, politics, and social issues. His decline into not being able to speak was devastating to Chris and the rest of his family, but Chris kept reaching out to his dad, to maintain the strong bond they shared throughout Chris’ life. Much love to you and your family, Chris, and thanks for the memories, John.