Can we still be friends?
Maybe you have a friend that has been diagnosed with dementia and that thought is running through your head. You may feel uncomfortable or unsure of how to proceed, but your friendship can still be meaningful. You can still enjoy your friendship, even as it changes through the progress of the disease.
Friendship (at its best) pulls out of us virtues of loyalty, understanding, generosity and cheerfulness. When a friend is faced with a difficult road, those attributes are truly tested. Trying to understand their fears and anxieties is important. Dealing with dementia can negatively impact the self-confidence of your friend. Your understanding and affection can help them navigate their diminishing abilities.
We may find it easier to accompany a friend through an illness that affects the body than an illness that affects the brain. Walking with a friend whose mental capacities are affected by dementia is challenging. We must change the way we interact and that can be mentally demanding.
An individual experiencing cognitive decline requires us to slow down. There is so much hurry in the way we lead our lives. It is a rare phenomenon when someone stops and listens. Having an authentic friendship with an individual with dementia forces us to listen. We must be generous with our time when our friend can’t process information at normal speeds. While this is a gift to them, it is also a gift to ourselves. Learning to slow down and listen will positively affect our other relationships.
Our example of loyalty to our friend will impact other people and come full circle back to us. It reminds me of that promise from the gospel of Luke:
“Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.”
Our loyalty in time of trial will rebound in unexpected ways. I’m not suggesting that the only reason to give is to get, but we do reap what we sow. When we sow loyalty, understanding and generosity, we will reap those benefits. It may sound trite, but it bears repeating: we can’t expect loyalty from our family and friends if we are disloyal. We can’t expect understanding for ourselves if we don’t extend it to others.
Don’t feel discouraged if your immediate reactions are not automatically positive. Recognize that facing your friend’s illness forces you to face your own mortality. That can be uncomfortable. It takes courage to look in the face of illness and accept that it is there. Illness in another is painful to watch. Dealing with dementia in someone you care about can be excruciating. It takes character to overcome the initial reaction of wanting to avoid the interactions. It is natural to shy away from or avoid that which gives us pain. But don’t let that be your final choice.
Part of the disconnect we may feel from our friend is worrying how to communicate with them. Their thought processes will be slower. They may be frustrated or embarrassed by their new reality. It is important to slow down our communication and simplify it.
Simplifying our communication doesn’t mean we speak to them as if they were young children. It means not being overwhelming in the amount of information that we are giving them in one shot. If we talk fast, with no pauses, it will be hard for them to assimilate and process what we are saying. This can lead to a feeling of disconnectedness on both sides. Slow right down and wait between sentences so that they can process what you are saying.
Another important idea for enjoying your friendship is to live in the moment. It will be the simple pleasures like enjoying music together at the piano bar or the warmth of a shared moment of laughter that will build this new time in your relationship. Knowing that they are loved is important for your friend. Their emotional memory remains strong and you can build up their emotional bank account by your actions. A strong relationship with you will add immeasurably to their quality of life.
One of the interesting challenges with this friendship will be the way it stretches you. Initially, the balance in the relationship will shift. You may feel like you are doing all the giving. But as you slow down and enjoy the unique individual who is your friend, you will find depths in this relationship that were unknown to you.
You will also discover strength in yourself that will help you walk this journey with your friend. The love and kindness that you show will be a legacy for you to cherish all the rest of your days.
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.