10 Profound Life Lessons I Learned From College Students Working With Alzheimer’s Patients

“Life is about relationships.” – Dr. James Houston

“True union does not absorb distinction, but actually intensifies it. The more one gives oneself in creative union to any other, the more one becomes oneself.” – Fr. Richard Rohr

For the past five years I have had the privilege of watching beautiful relationships develop between college students and people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through a program called Bringing Art to Life.

Developed by Cognitive Dynamics Foundation and the University of Alabama Honors College as a service learning course called UH 300: Art to Life, this program teaches students about dementia and compassionate caregiving and pairs them with persons who have the condition. Using art therapy as a tool for creative engagement and reminiscence, students validate their participants in the present, and honor and preserve the life stories they come to know through relationships that develop over each semester. As course director, I am able to watch these relationships unfold – a miraculous sight, indeed.

[4 Important Life Lessons We Can Learn From Dementia]

The students and participants have taught me so much over the years, and I’d like to share what I consider to be some of the most important lessons:

  • Innate dignity and personhood are not affected by dementia or any other condition – We must believe this if we want to have meaningful relationships.
  • Openness, vulnerability, and non-judgement are required of us Real relationships are risky, requiring mutuality and reciprocity. I have found people with dementia to be very willing to share themselves, and we must do the same for the relationships to grow. We should throw out any pre-conceived ideas about what will be possible – expect to be surprised.
  • Be willing to enter their world and validate them there – Out of respect and deference, we should realize that the reality of persons with dementia may look quite different than our reality. As these realities diverge, persons with dementia may lose the ability to enter the world of another. If we want a relationship, we will have to follow them to the place where they are.
  • Leave behind ego, embrace empathy – We must realize that we have no control over the situation, that people may not behave or respond as we expect or prefer. We must be willing to climb out of our ego towers and step into the lives of others, attempting to see as they see, feel as they feel, know as they know, even hurt as they may hurt. This, more than anything, will give birth to the compassion and desire to put an end to the stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, to fund research for cure, and to help bring about the culture change in care that is so needed.

[5 Thing You Should Never Say to a Person With Alzheimer’s]

  • Be fully present – During art therapy sessions, our participants with dementia seem to be absorbed in the present moment, experiencing the flow associated with creativity and relationship. We should take a lesson from them and do the same. It amazes me how these busy students, technology-driven multi-taskers, are able to center themselves week after week and meet their participants in the sanctity of the present moment.
  • Listen mindfully – People with dementia may have a hard time communicating verbally. We must learn to listen with all our senses, and even with our spirits, in a completely accepting, non-judgmental fashion. Fostering the development of this skill can open a deep and wonderful world of knowing “even as we are known.”
  • Tap the deep wells of personhood – As we come to know someone, we can appreciate those essential traits, qualities and interests that make them who they are. These traits and qualities often reveal themselves through creativity. In seeking deepened relationships with people who have dementia, we should tap into these through reminiscence and validated experience, and follow the trail which we sense to be opening up before us. There may be treasures waiting to be found.
  • Practice patience and kindness – People with dementia may have a hard time expressing their thoughts. They may repeat themselves quite often. Our participants often forget the students from one week to the next. One recent participant says each week, “I just met them today, but I really like them.” It is quite touching to see the kindness with which the students react to this reality, warmly encouraging and embracing their new friends in each unfolding moment – and mirroring behavior they have seen in their participants.

[What Can a Person With Late Stage Dementia Offer to a Friend?]

  • Just be! – Everyone has value just by being. Our culture seems to tell us worth is gained by doing. Just being – being together in the same space and letting our spirits touch – is enough to spawn enriching relationships that can bring depth and joy.
  • Find joy in the journey – Art therapists teach us that the goal is not the final product, but the art-making journey and the memories, feelings, and relationships that are expressed and encouraged along the way. As caregivers, family members or friends, we should “change glasses” so that we can see the blessings and joys which are sure to be present, and be grateful for each of them.

From what I have seen in these students, I have faith in the current generation of young people. They seem to have a desire for service, to make their own contributions to a better and more compassionate world. They are courageous, not shrinking back in fear from touching the pain of others, and from experiencing the sometimes uncomfortable prospect of their own growth.

And from them I have learned perhaps one of the most important lessons of all. In cultivating empathy and compassion for others who have their own wounds, we just may discover the essence of ourselves. We may find the keys to unlock some of our own hidden chambers so that we, too, can experience the healing touch of relationships in some of our own states of dis-ease. In hearing the stories of others, we may indeed discover parts of our own narrative that we have not yet heard. In knowing another, we may come to know and have compassion for ourselves.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

I am sure of this: we should create opportunities for our youth to develop, from a young age, relationships with people who have dementia and other conditions society labels as “disabilities.” This could be the game changer, promoting the empathy to transform society into a culture of compassion, not only regarding the care of those with dementia and other conditions, but also for all of us as we relate to ourselves and others on this earth which is our beautiful home.


{Image credit: Igor Kasalovic, Unsplash}


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