October 23, 2012

My Dad’s Dementia & My Lessons in Being. ~ Mary Beth Ogulewicz

“It is not down on any map. True places never are.”

~ Herman Melville

A diagnosis of severe dementia brings with it a lot of attendant detail: having to load my father’s blades into his razor, tie his tie or turn on the stove. Whenever I tell people I take care of my father who has dementia, the knee jerk reaction is to express sympathy, when in fact it has been one of the most  beautiful openings in my life.

As my father has slipped deeper into dementia, in many ways, his true emotional self has been freed. No longer can he retain his armor of masculine ego and judgment. What pours forth is years and years of unexpressed love. Freed from the bonds of the thinking superficial mind, his true self is radiating all that he never had the courage to speak.

The same man who was never able to utter the words, “I love you” to me, now gushes it in sometimes socially awkward moments of love to any person who extends the smallest kindness towards him: nurses, waitresses, check out clerks, friends at church. His display of emotions has a physical dimension as well. As a child, he was always the strong silent type. But now, I have had to relearn hugging him because he holds tightly until the point (as my kids say) where you think okay, this is getting uncomfortable.

Learning to simply just be with that and satiate him with love has been a lesson in presence, in giving myself over to the moment without thought.

There are days when I resent having to take time from my already too busy life to drive to his home and do his shopping, check that he has taken his medicine or take him to the doctor. Yet, after every visit I return feeling balanced. With dementia, my Dad truly lives the credo that there is no place to go. There is only now.

To eat with him brings a new definition to mindful eating. He carefully scans his plate. Then he fixes on the precise items he wants to spear with his fork then ever so carefully raises the fork to his mouth and slowly places it in. Thereafter it is a love fest of sensation as he slowly and thoughtfully savors each bite. He is in no hurry to gobble his food. When he finishes a meal he likes to simply remain seated and rest a spell before having to get up, allowing himself the time to fully take in all that is from this experience of dining out.

Sometimes I wonder if he is tuned out, but then I see the glint in his eye and know he is receiving joy by breathing, seeing and being.

In meditation we tune into the flow of our breath, the rising of the chest, the first moment of inhale. All of which are designed to bring us in deeper relationship with ourself and reconnect with our inner wisdom.

As Devarshi Steven Hartman says:

“All yoga practice is designed to bring one into the experience of the present moment where all the treasures that we seek are stored. Transformation is the removal of all that keeps us from experiencing the present moment fully. Yoga practices are designed to transform, to bring to light all that keeps us from fully experiencing the present moment, just as it is, without distortion. Yoga practices are a vehicle for remembering, resting and residing in the experience that we are infinite, eternal and whole: on an endless, fascinating, mystical journey.”

My father in dementia is a living walking meditation. He effortlessly breathes in each moment exactly as it is, and is abundantly grateful with each moment. Without the capacity to multitask, he brings a singularity of purpose to each action as it unfolds. Rather than tune into breath, when I am with him, I tune into him, follow his cadence and learn to simply be with the messiness of life.

So when the food arrives late, so be it. We have nowhere to be but here. When we are at the doctor’s office and the employees are stressed out because they are behind in their schedule, he patiently looks out the window and receives their care when they are ready. Encountering him in this state always brings a smile and kind remark from those attending him. He emanates stillness and that peace has a discernible effect on those around him.

When I hear the same story repeated by him for a fourth time in 20 minutes I listen as attentively as if it were the first telling, noting changes in detail, intonation or sometimes being able to elicit a different response from him about the experience. It is rare that we get a do-over in most conversations. Many a time after a conversation I have thought, “I wish I had said that.” With Dad, I get to replay conversations and delve into different aspects of his experience with each retelling.

He reminds me, just be. Just be. There is no moment more precious than right now, right here.

He is still teaching me how to live life.


Mary Beth Ogulewicz is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, professor and mother of four breathing her way through life. Her website is Embraceyouryoga.com and her blog is Livingsamadhi.wordpress.com.


Editor: Edith Lazenby

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