When I'm not canoeing or leading hikes, I spend a lot of time with elders, helping them bathe and keeping them company. Caregiving came to me in synchronicity and has become a major part of my working hours. I enjoy it, because I enjoy hanging out with people who have much more history than I have. I love hearing their stories, learning what they care about and being able to help them have the quality of life they desire as they edge toward a century of living.
Tonight, something has changed in my appreciation for this "job", this way that I'm spending my time.
It hit me today, as I walked around the block gathering flowers with my senior friend, holding her hand and trying to keep ahold of the growing collection of blooms in the other hand... I realized that my friend's experience of the world is completely different than mine.
For her, the only time that exists is right now. She has absolutely no short term memory left. I believe that she recognizes me and she always smiles when she sees me, but she will never remember my name. She does not remember anything that happened ten minutes ago, and can't recall the heading of a newspaper article when she's a paragraph into the story. Five minutes later she will read the article again as if it was the first time. Once, she even laughed at herself and told me how absurd it was to try to make sense of what she was reading when she has no short term memory left! She said this not with the grief that I imagined I might feel if I lost my memory. She said this in laughter, and it made me smile.
It's easy to feel pity for her... To imagine what it must be like to not remember what happened yesterday or even remember she has a caregiver sleeping in the other room when she doesn't see me in the moment.
But, something changed in my perception of my friend tonight. What happens when there is no memory of the past and no thought of the future? She has no memory of the flowers we gathered an hour ago. But, each time she reached down to pick another one, her face lit up and she just glowed in the beauty of what she had found. When we sat on her porch watching the sunset, every time she looked at the clouds, she smiled hugely as she exclaimed "the clouds sure are pretty aren't they?"
What is left when memory is gone? Only the present moment. What must it be like to live in that perception? I only saw one sunset tonight. She saw hundreds, a different snapshot in every second... Each moment held more beauty than the last!
I wonder what gift there is in that way of being. Maybe dementia isn't something to grieve for. In the loss of remembering what happened yesterday, my friend is sitting in the present moment in a way that I will never know, even with years and years of meditation and mindfulness practices, years of sitting with the birds and feeling the water glide by under my canoe.
I looked at her with new eyes tonight, and I realized that this moment, right now, is part of my path.
This moment, as I sit quietly, pondering memory and presence while my friend sips her nutrition shake and nibbles on her dinner, and nods off as the last light from the sun silhouettes the mountains outside her window. This is the only moment that there is. There is no future, and no past... There is only right now. Isn't that what she is experiencing? What would it be like for me to experience this moment in the same way?
This I ponder, and I appreciate the chance to spend this evening with her, and not planning for tomorrow's events or thinking of the incredible events of the last few months. I look at my friend's world in wonder, and in gratitude for having the chance to experience her world with her.
I have much to learn.