Look Up! Mindful Dementia Care

We don’t often enjoy perfect weather in Chicago; it tends to be freezing, howling cold or muggy, stupefying heat. This was a perfect summer day; cool, with the clouds chasing the sun and a light breeze off the lake. The city park was small, with a World War I monument standing guard over some swings, slides and a sand pit. Most of the children were very young with moms and the occasional dad in attendance. I was the only grandparent there that day.

My grandchildren were playing with a little boy about four years old. They were having a great time, chasing each other over the slides, jumping in and out of the sand pit, flying high on the swings. The mother of the little boy they were playing with that day never looked up. Not once. She stared at the phone in her hand or texted constantly. She never saw the beautiful, billowing sky; she never saw the Metra train as it roared and rumbled at the edge of the park; she never saw the children flying by, shouting, laughing. She never saw her own little boy as he tumbled around her, calling her name,

“Mama, mama, look, look, look at me. Mama, mama, look, look!”

She never looked up. She never saw him, the sun lighting up his brown hair, his legs pumping wildly as he taught himself to swing, the sheer joy in his face as chased the other children around and around the monument in the middle of the mossy green grass. The perfect summer day, her beautiful child were all lost to her because she could not take a moment to look up. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder, to tell her that this day, this moment, this park, this boy would soon pass out of space and time. I wanted to tell her that she would look up some day (finally) and her precious, darling son would be grown and gone.

She obviously cared for her little boy; he was clean and well dressed and well nourished. But she didn’t see him. She didn’t see how he struggled to get himself into the swing; the look of triumph on his face when he finally managed to hoist himself up into the seat. She missed it when he tried and tried to get the swing going, how it twisted and turned this way and that, how he wouldn’t give up, how he finally got the swing going the right way, back and forth, back and forth and then his legs pumped and pumped and he was flying high, up into the billowing sky of that perfect summer day. She never looked up. Not once. She missed it. The moment her boy taught himself to swing was lost forever to her because she never looked up.

As we left the park that perfect summer day, we could hear him calling as he flew high up to the sky,

“Mama, mama, look at me! I can swing, I can swing! Mama, mama look!”

His voice flew up and away, up and away, fading, vanishing in the high, blue and white sky that his mother never saw. She never looked up.

Working with people who live with dementia has taught us to be very aware and appreciative of the small moments of life. Elders who are nearing the end of life understand that it is the ordinary, the everyday that makes each life special and unique. What will we cherish if we are fortunate enough to live to old age?

When we work with caregivers (both family caregivers and professionals) we often discuss the importance of looking for and celebrating the small victories, the brief moments of joy, the flash of recognition. We, as caregivers, need to remember the importance of taking just a moment to look up from the daily round of chores and tasks. We can try to be mindful while performing these daily tasks. Even as busy and stressed as we are, we can still take a little time here and there to stop, look and share a moment with the person for whom we care. Just take a breath now and then, look up and really see the person you care for. Today, this day, stop and look into the eyes of the people you love. Look! Up!