This week John and I watched the movie Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes in the lead role. The film chronicles the life and work of a woman who was diagnosed with autism at age two, but went on to use her brilliant but different-from-the-norm mind to revolutionize the way cattle are handled in feed yards and packing plants across North America. The real life Dr. Temple Grandin* is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and an award winning author and speaker. My response to her story from the perspective of a former teacher and current caregiver was profound gratitude for those who view the world differently.
The overwhelming message of the film is the importance of recognizing the value of people who differ from the norm. We must work hard to understand what they try to tell us because their ability to think outside the box can benefit us all. Temple Grandin’s life has been blessed by her amazing intellect, but also because she found people who took the time to understand her unique solutions to problems others could not see. Without those empathetic teachers and mentors, her message might have been lost.
We avoid finding strands of commonality with those who are different or damaged because we are afraid. I’ve learned that interaction with an Alzheimer patient requires courage; we must overcome the reluctance to delve too deeply into the ways a damaged mind functions. It’s as though we fear that understanding how their minds work might create similar differences in our own brains. We distance ourselves from conditions that, if acquired, would make us susceptible to rejection or the vulnerability of illness. This reluctance to understand and listen has to be overcome if we want to be good friends, caregivers, and teachers. We risk missing the blessings those who see the world differently can provide.
I can relate to these lessons because one of the pitfalls of caregiving is the temptation to give way to the need for emotional self-preservation. It is a challenge to stay fully present for a loved one who is struggling with the confusion of Alzheimer’s. For example, in this tenth year since her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Mom fills page after page of spiral notebooks with words, and there is a temptation to give up my attempts to decipher her writings. With a chosen ignorance, I might protect myself from signs that she is deteriorating, but I would also lose the nuggets of wisdom and joy she still has to offer.
This morning I pulled one of Mom’s journals from the shelf by her chair and opened it at random to find this day brightener:
I’m grateful for simple pleasures of a cold diet coke and a nice writing pen! Don’t get around much anymore, nevertheless—I have memories! Doesn’t take much to please a senior citizen, just our Lord and some nice music…don’t get around much anymore but we have fun!
Today Mom’s words provided an unexpected lift for my day; another time they might give insight into her wants or needs. It is important that I keep paying attention, because even though Mom’s thinking patterns have become different from the norm, her thoughts and words have value still.