Many people have said you should never disagree with people living with dementia. I have had many discussions with people who live with dementia which have involved disagreement. I have also shut down some conversations.
Always agreeing disables & patronises anybody including people living with dementia and doesn’t allow opportunity for discussion & debate which may involve disagreement. After all debate & discussion engage the brain, exercising & retaining or creating new ability, not to mention enabling a person to express themselves. Through discussion we grow, reflect & hopefully change for the better. Why should anyone be stripped of their potential to be all that they can.
Once upon a greener me, I was asked by a client to visit her mother who lived with dementia and offer her treatments if she wished.
We agreed I massage her hands. She was bright, sharp, intelligent and we were soon enjoying each other’s company while I smoothed her stiff fingers. Towards the end of the treatment though the “mood” changed.
We were discussing the care she received at the home which she agreed was good, but then she made a derogatory comment about the Asian & black people who worked there and how she did not want to be touched by them, labelling them inappropriately, and that they should go back to where they came from. I remember stopping in my tracks as I was clearing up after the treatment and asserted that I disagreed. They were lovely people who did a hard job and had every right to be here. In fact, some of the staff were descended from people we invited to come to our country to help out after the war. Our discussion did go back and forth a little but both of us had dug our heels in protecting the core of our own identity so there was no meaningful discussion. We had shut down.
Let’s say it wasn’t the best way to end a therapeutic treatment as I struggled with my angry feelings towards her. This was reflected to me the following week when I returned to offer her a treatment. She declined. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that was certainly the case & at the time I was quite happy not to have her as a client due to my heated feelings about her racism.
However, what I realise now is that I gave no space to build a relationship with her. I shut her down with my opinion, evoking anger and maybe guilt or shame too. Had I shown curiosity and less judge & jury attitude, maybe it could have led to unpicking a narrative she had become aligned with. Maybe we could have explored this through more open discussion. Maybe by just listening I could have left her with her thoughts and feelings to unpick for herself. Who knows!
A current client holds great hate for a race. However, I show curiosity, discuss the causes of her prejudice & due to her dementia we discuss this topic repeatedly when she brings it up. It’s good for me because I get to practice something I didn’t used to be so good at, and am still improving upon. I am discussing racism instead of shaming people & shutting them down. It’s good for her because she gets to reflect & consider & maybe make her peace as she resolves a bitter feeling she has been carrying since WW2. She seems to soften the more we talk about the causes of her racism and the effect it not only has on her, but her community, her country & her world. We talk about letting go and forgiveness and this also includes self-forgiveness. She feels safe. We are open.
So, if a person living with dementia disagrees with me on any subject, I like to wonder about their reasons with them & if possible open up discussion or hold space for them to reflect. I am learning through my practice to do this more in my personal relationships too, which isn’t always easy when there is much more emotional investment and I carry a narrative of my own. So yes, I am still angry, there is much to be angry about when inequity & racism raise their heads, but resolution and education are much more likely with more curiosity & shared reflection. I am still reflecting and practicing to be open.