Have you ever wished for a particular talent: playing an instrument, drawing, painting, jewelry or pottery making? Experts say it’s never too late to learn a new skill or to revive something you enjoyed at a younger age. Too many people think that if they can’t be at a professional level with something that they might as well not do it. All or nothing mentality robs a lot of people out of having an enjoyable life. Somethings become easier to do and learn as you get older, I think it’s because you learn to get out of your own way. I have known several people who, after retirement, learned languages, took up an instrument, began painting pictures, and not only enjoyed it but were quite good at it. While it’s true that the younger you learn a language the easier it is, that doesn’t mean that older people cannot learn a new language. The human brain is an amazing thing, and there is no telling what you can learn and do if you apply yourself. This is even true for people with dementia.
Since dementia entered her life, Harriet has become more and more artistic; making glass jewelry, Christmas wreaths, and knitting scarves, wash cloths, etc. In the book, An Unintended Journey, author Janet Yegoda Shagam writes that Frontotemporal Dementia causes a, “Deterioration of language function, [with an,] occasional increase in artistic and musical expression.” Table 2.3 Page 45. We’ve seen an increase in artistic expression, and even bought a kiln to fire the glass jewelry. But FTD gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Although Harriet made very beautiful jewelry, and really enjoyed doing it, she has now lost all memory of how to use the kiln. Our plan is for me to learn how to use the kiln so that she can still make jewelry and I will fire it.
In the past if Harriet was asked to teach a Vacation Bible School, or Sunday School class, she would always say, “I’m not a teacher. I’ve tried it a number of times and neither the children or I enjoyed it.” During her last few years at the Library, Harriet taught a number of classes on wreath making and everyone had a ball. One woman, who is a farmer, and raises pigs, became teary eyed and gushed, “Thank you so much. I didn’t know I could make something so beautiful.” The Library asked her to hold wreath making classes even after her retirement.
Think about this for a moment, even as she was losing her ability to work with the computer, prepare meals for large groups, or even use her smart phone, she was gaining the ability to make beautiful wreaths, jewelry, and scarves. Not only that, but the changes made it possible for her to teach others and enjoy doing it. I find that amazing. This tells me I should never write someone off because of their disabilities.
I’ve read several testimonials about people who lost their jobs because of Frontotemporal dementia, which is one reason why people will hide their dementia from others for as long as possible. However, these things cannot be hidden forever, and when the loss of abilities, and personality changes, become evident to all, people will find themselves in the unemployment line. At times like that it is easy to become depressed and think that your life is over and that you will never find something meaningful to do with the time you have left. This would be a mistake because as some abilities disappear new ones seem to rise to the surface allowing people with dementia to make important contributions to society. In the movie The Sound of Music, Maria says, “When God closes a door, he always opens a window somewhere.”
In the blog, Welcome to Dementialand, Elaine M. Eshbaugh, PhD, writes, “In my opinion the most exciting development in the field of dementia, over the last several years…has been the involvement of people living with dementia in advocacy and education. They’ve connected by means of social media and videoconferencing. They’ve started writing. They’ve started doing public speaking… I know what some of my readers are thinking. They are thinking…people with dementia can’t write. They can’t get up and speak in front of groups. And how would they even set these things up? They can’t use computers, talk on the phone, or keep an up-to-date calendar…. There are many individuals living with dementia who are not only capable of this type of public advocacy but capable of doing it quite effectively.” Sadly, the time will come when these brave people will not be able to speak, write, talk on the phone, or keep an up-to-date calendar, but it’s not today.
I know a man in Livonia, Michigan who has been diagnosed with FTD. He complains that while it’s true that he has lost his job, his wife acts like he has lost his mind. That is, she doesn’t want him to do anything because she doesn’t want him to get frustrated and angry when he fails. Bill’s wife is his primary caregiver and really works at keeping him safe, healthy, and happy. If he wants to help around the house, fry himself an egg, or work on a project, she will stop him and do the job herself. She is making a huge mistake, one which will hasten the progress of the disease. While it’s true that there are things that are too dangerous for someone with dementia to do, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to do anything. The question, the caregiver must ask is, what can I do to help my loved one succeed in the thing that he or she wishes to do?
Don’t be too quick to assume your loved one can no longer make meaningful contributions to your family. In our situation, Harriet still loves to cook, but I help. (Some days more than others.) When she is having a bad day, I will do most, or all, of the cooking. When she is having a good day, I’m her gofer, I do whatever she wants me to do. I have to be ready to jump in and help or back off and watch, as the situation arises. I want Harriet to do as much as she can to keep her mind active, and her interests alive. Working together, as partners, is good for both of us.
If you’ve been diagnosed with Dementia, and find yourself unemployed, do not think that this means your life is over. Move forward in faith and see what you are capable of doing. Yes, the door, of your vocation, has been shut and locked, therefore, look around for the open window. Ask yourself, “what’s next?” and walk out into the adventure that lies before you. If you’re a caregiver, encourage your loved one to follow their interests. Remember, while dementia may slow them down they are not stupid nor have they lost all abilities. The time may come, when their abilities will be gone, but it’s not today. Working together as partners may help lighten the load for a season.