I was in the process of composing this post (dementia + cancer = hearing the diagnosis for the first time (again)) when I discovered that it fits with today’s daily prompt: We all feel down from time to time. How do you combat the blues? What’s one tip you can share with others that always helps to lift your spirits?
Here’s my advice (with a story to preface it)…
I’m currently working with a patient who has moderate-severe dementia. Although Speech-Language Pathologists “treat” dementia, I’m working with him to improve his weak swallow. I touch upon cognitive tasks but it’s not my focus as he was referred for swallow therapy. Impaired swallowing is so dangerous in that it can lead to aspiration pneumonia (lungs fill with fluid and bacteria due to food/liquid/secretions going into the airway instead of the stomach) which can be life threatening. It also decreases one’s quality of life. Two weeks ago, I noticed a decline in his overall affect…increased lethargy, increased fatigue, delayed processing, and decreased cognition. I spent one week away for Spring Break and upon my return, I noticed his skin looked drier and he looked frailer, like he had lost a few pounds. After our session, his caregiver delivered the news…his previously localized lung cancer was probably spreading. And they have elected comfort measures only, which means no more testing and no more treatment.
Even more heart wrenching than the news itself was my patient’s reaction to the news. He slowly looked up at us and the one word he uttered pierced me straight in the heart… “Cancer?!?” I positioned myself behind my patient and mouthed to his caregiver, “He doesn’t know?” with this look of utter shock on my face.
Due to his dementia, my patient seemed to not remember the cancer diagnosis he received back in 2009. So hearing this news was like hearing it for the first time (again).
The look on his face changed from questioning to confusion to disbelief to fear. His caregiver consoled him, “You’re okay.” I rubbed his back.
I will never forget the level of emotion I felt in those few minutes. As a seasoned Speech-Language Pathologist (going on 11 years), empathy and compassion are second nature. My heightened level of awareness and observational skills contribute to my ability to determine when something isn’t right. I’ve also been around death and dying. But this moment was one I had never experienced before and it left a lasting impression on me.
Today’s daily prompt asks how we combat the blues and asks for a tip to share that always lifts our spirits. As a therapist, I’m exposed to a lot of good and a lot of celebrations… but along with the good comes some not so good. One could feel emotionally drained from the daily exposure to pain, disability, hardship, disease, frustration, death, etc. Or one could learn from it and be humbled by it and realize that there are other people out there who would give anything to have what we have. The “small” things that can sometimes drag me down are really nothing compared to the medically complex diagnoses some of my patients are dealing with. I can be a source of joy for them, someone they look forward to seeing, someone who listens, someone who understands, and someone who genuinely cares, wants to help, and hopefully does help.
However, little do my patients know that what they give to me is so much more valuable than what I give to them. I am the privileged one they are allowing into their lives. Among a list of things, they teach me gratitude and grace, they teach me perspective, and they humble me to the point of realizing that my own blues are actually blessings I should be cherishing as they indicate a “normal” life. Each and every time I interact with my patients, my spirits are lifted.
The amazing thing is that you don’t have to be a therapist to experience this spirit lifting. You just need to be a compassionate human being. And if you feel you don’t quite know how to be one yet, just being around others and listening to their stories and allowing yourself to be humbled by them should be enough to start putting everything into perspective. Even if you’re not the social type, reading blogs and watching the news will expose you to others who are in more desperate situations than yourself.
Oh, and on a high note and as an upside to moderate-severe dementia… when I saw my patient yesterday again (after the heart wrenching experience two days prior), he was back to his “normal” self again. No cancer confusion. No cancer disbelief. No cancer fear. Just my patient being present in the moment, laughing (again) at the mouth exercises I was reviewing with him (again) as if it were the first time he was seeing them (again).