Dementia and Beautiful People

Beautiful People

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth, 1986, 96.

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I met at least two beautiful people today. I went to say prayers and give ashes to an older member of our congregation in the hospital on Ash Wednesday. As I was waiting at the elevator with my silver pix filled with a small amount of ashes, an African American wheelchair attendant asked me about the black ash on my forehead. I reminded him about Ash Wednesday. He asked for ashes. He said he needed them today, and it was his church’s tradition as well. He said he usually takes another elevator, but for today he took this one, and now he knew why. So, we had “ashes to go” right there as we waited for the elevators to come down. Here was a gentle, sensitive man looking for God’s presence in all he does, especially in busy times. I do not know any of his life circumstances.  We gave each other a blessing and as the elevator came down, we parted as I went up to Michael’s floor.

Michael was sitting up and his step daughter was sitting by him. I will always remember his amazing smile as he saw me and reached out to greet me with his left arm tethered to intravenous tubing. Both bandaged legs were elevated from the floor in his wheelchair. He had fallen and broken his hip, but he talked about having a puncture in his heel. Kindness and love reached out through his dementia as he apologized for not standing up when I entered his room. His step daughter described him as the sweetest man she had ever known, and just in these few minutes I knew it was true.  I longed to stay for hours and just hear him talk, even though his confusion about his children and his life made no sense. I craved being in the presence of someone who only seemed to know love and kindness, even though he was not connected to reality. I hope I can share Michael with those who come for direction and remind spiritual friends that love and God do not need to be rational or make any sense. Love has a distinctive “aura” that can fill a room fuller and faster than the most beautiful or intelligent phrases, maybe even poetry. 

There are many book about dementia and Alzheimer’s. Spiritual friends often ask about finding love and God as they watch a loved one slip away in dementia. Certainly, not all are like Michael.

 I share two books that have been helpful. Susan Cushman has written a book Tangles and Plaques, a mother and daughter face Alzheimer’s about a more difficult situation, and Frank Broyles has written a very practical book about caring for his wife with Alzheimer’s, Coach Broyles’ Playbook for Alzheimer’s Caregivers: A Practical Tip Guide. I think that some of the most beautiful people that Kubler-Ross is talking about are not only the dying but those with dementia and those who care for  both of them.

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