For the past five months, I have been visiting a patient with mental retardation who has changed the way I think about aging and dementia. When I first met her, she greeted me with a huge smile and showed me her collection of coloring books. Her passion for coloring and her constant grin made her seem like a child to me and I was happy to give her company while she colored. However, I was unsure whether I would ever be able to engage in a conversation with her that went beyond the basics of how she was doing and what she liked to do. I was proven wrong. As we became closer and she became more comfortable with me, she opened up about her family, the tragic deaths of her parents, her loneliness as all her siblings were dying, and her frustration with being too old to work or do many of the things she loved to do. I listened with patience and although sometimes I did not know what to say, I tried to comfort her and be there for her.
Unfortunately, her health has been declining and during one of my more recent visits when I asked her how she was doing, she said she was “getting there”. During that visit, she seemed unlike her usual cheery self and I was surprised by the sudden, marked change in her mood and was scared by the thought of her death. In the moment, I tried not to think about my emotions, instead focusing on her. However, as I returned back home that day, I attempted to cope with my thoughts and emotions.
As I had more time to reflect on my patient and death and aging in general, I realized that I have learned a lot from my interactions with her. I learned the importance of being available for my patient, visiting her regularly and actively listening to her. I learned about comfort and how it is important for both of us to feel comfortable with each other. I learned about patience and how our relationship is ever growing and changing and took time to build. I learned about flexibility and focusing on her needs. I should feel free to let the conversation flow and if she did not want to talk about something then I should not push her. I learned the importance of being present when I am with my patient. It is easy in this world to get distracted by technology, other people, and my own thoughts. However, when I am with my patient, I should be focused on my interactions with her. I learned that a person’s dignity is not affected by dementia. We may see an elderly person with mental retardation as someone who we cannot connect with or someone who does not understand everything we do. However, this is absolutely false and we should treat these people with respect and love. People with dementia may see things differently than we do but they are not inferior to us. We have to learn to empathize with them and recognize their perspective. We need to put away our prejudices and misconceptions and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. As I have interacted more and more with my patient, communication has become easier and I am able to look past her health conditions and see who the person she truly is.