Today I had the opportunity to visit with a lovely young woman named Anne, who is an elder companion. Elder companions may assist with basic daily tasks, provide respite for caregivers, and improve the quality of life for their charges by decreasing isolation through the formation of relationships that end up being a blessing to both the companion and the person who needs support.
Anne told me that sometimes people who learn she works with dementia patients will make comments about the behavioral changes that are a part of the disease process. Some folks seem to feel that overtly negative behaviors reveal that a person has always been "like that," the only difference now being that dementia has robbed them of the ability to hide their true natures.
I was impressed with the answer Anne provides these people, which I've paraphrased here: "Isn't it nice that when people who now have dementia were younger, they had the ability to choose not to give voice to those negative emotions that we all have? It's sad that now they've lost the ability to make that choice. But that doesn't mean they were bad before or that they've changed now--they are the same on the inside although they may act differently on the outside."
I joked that the reason I thought these words were so wise is that I agreed with them so strongly! Negative behaviors need to be thought of as surface static--the result of cognitive changes and the physical discomforts of age and disease--and not as a reflection of the person's "true colors." A simple way to think about this is the old illustration that the outside of a package doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of the gift within. Bodies age and minds deteriorate, but beneath these outward signs every dementia patient is still in possession of a heart that needs comfort and support, a heart that is surprisingly capable of giving as well as receiving love. It's our challenge as caregivers to maintain connections to the hearts of the precious people who need our care.
You can read more about the unique and much-needed profession of elder companion here.