Compassion in Care Partnerships

When we cultivate relationships with people living with dementia or other causes of cognitive impairment (or any disability), we open ourselves to a natural outpouring of compassion from the reservoir that is present inside each of us.

Centering ourselves in those times of pure connection helps us to develop an appreciation of deep human needs – not only those of persons living with dementia, but also our own.

The faces of those persons we try to understand in this way begin to look a lot like ours.

Then we come to know that there must be reciprocity in care partnerships, and we can begin to receive the same kind of compassionate embrace from those living with dementia that we, ourselves, are extending.

This relational phenomenon can bring the light of hope to the darkest days.

Advent Mirrors I – XIII

Advent Mirror I
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading Light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the mirror, my child,” an elder said.
“But first, put out all other lamps.
The Babe’s true Light burns blue
in the luminous darkness
of a contrite heart.”

Advent Mirror II
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading Light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the eyes of your suffering sister,
your broken brother, my child,” an elder said.
“With faces dark as a desert cave,
they seek the leading star.
As they gaze upward, look within
the chambers of their hearts
where lies the Holy Child,
for there is no room in the inn.”

Advent Mirror III
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading Light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the place where you have fallen, my child,” an elder said.
“The ground is level on the stable’s earth
where wise ones’ gifts are laid
and shepherds see salvation rising
in the star-lit eyes of their brother beasts.”

Advent Mirror IV
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the manger of the heart, my child,” an elder said,
“where sage and shepherd, beast and babe
must gather to feed on Love’s true food
beneath the star-struck ‘Gloria’
of the Mother’s gaze.”

Advent Mirror V
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the sacrament of a silent soul, my child,” an elder said,
“a spirit that is weaned and quiet,
leaning on its Mother for repose.
There you will know the Brother Babe,
lit candles of your eyes together glowing
in the ambient atmosphere of Love.”

Advent Mirror VI
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”                                                                                                   “In the moment you are too spent to grasp, my child,” an elder said,
“when the wind has blown hinterland your last hope,
for there the blessed Babe will always be found
in unseen gatherings of the impoverished
who listen for an angel’s song.”

Advent Mirror VII
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the home that has an empty chair, my child,” an elder said,
“as you labor alone in the echoes of lost years’ laughter.
Sit; be silent. And you may see in the today of your tomorrows
the lively touching of two hands, one young, one old,
passing the Gift to you.”

Advent Mirror VIII
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the meekness of the saint, my child,” an elder said,
“who, wanting nothing save green pastures and still waters
of the abiding Presence whose face has been seen and known
in sufferings and strivings of their emergent faith,
lay their last burden of gifts and crowns by the hoof prints
at the wooden peg-legged foot of a manger.”

Advent Mirror IX
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the hungry eyes of the prodigal, my child,” an elder said,
“set in a chasm darkly between deep longings for righteousness
and the swine pen slop of selfish desire.
Look there for the flame of recognition:
Mercy running, bearing the Babe.”

Advent Mirror X
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the battered and bruised, my child,” an elder said,
“who could choose the lighter load of resentment,
but shoulder the burden of compassion, instead.
When they stop by the river to drink, look to the waters.
The Babe will be found in the solace of a conscience cleared.”

Advent Mirror XI
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the purity of a clean heart, my child,” an elder said,
“whose pools remain settled in the struggle of letting go
as droplets filter through the stony layers of faith
like tears down a Mother’s face, leaving ripples
in the living water of the Baby’s eyes.”

Advent Mirror XII
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the ploughs of peace, my child,” an elder said,
“fashioned by poor folk who tend to things of earth
through which they grow our Heavenly food.
Come to the trough, find your place, stretch out a hand.
When you reach in, the Child will grasp your finger.”

Advent Mirror XIII
“I seek the Holy Babe,
His leading light for shepherds, sages.
Where must I look to find Him?”
“In the honest faces of the slandered, my child,” an elder said,
“who have lived the mindless life, and yet have turned now
toward the Love light of a star that always shines
for those who truly see themselves, and weep.
Look there, as they dry their tears
on the swaddling clothes of the Babe.”

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Kind and Knowing Eyes

I’m training to become a portrait painter.
To my surprise, this has little to do
with learning brush stroke techniques
and methods of mixing and shading
and much to do with working to see light
in vacant rooms with burned-out candles.

With patience, perception and proper instruction
I’m hoping to create a broad canvas landscape
in which the hues from
every single experience of
every single moment of
every single encounter
with the soul of myself and all else
will take the unfading form of
a Face with kind and knowing eyes.

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The “Want To”

You’re gonna rise up out of this place. You hear me, child?

Other folks say the die’s been cast. They’ve struck you off.

But I know you. You’ve got something they don’t see.

Listen to what I’m telling you. I see it when you and they don’t.

When you hide from me after you mess up.

And you get small again like a baby in your corner of shame.

I find you in that place you run to.

I picked you up then, and I’ll pick up now, and every time.

When you look up, at times like these, I see it. The “want to.”

It’s the “want to” in you that’ll make you make it, child.

The deep “want to” after you fall will get you through,

with a little lift from me. I’ll make you a vow, child.

I’ll always be there to lift you, even when you can’t see me.

Even if you doubt, or you think you’ve gotten too old or distant.

The “want to” will make you make it. Again and again.

And when you’ve made it, they’ll finally see it, too.

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Together

Deep in the kernel of the mind 

that is of the same substance as 

Spirit, Son and sun, where the blue 

hot flame of the dawning blazes 

ever inexhaustibly pure

and Silence is the force binding 

all elements in the form of

utter integrated union,

something structural happens when

I bring my skin-wrapped beating heart

in my hands and sit beside you, 

looking for the blue stillness I 

can feel beneath the cracked cover

of unknowing that seals you off 

from the warm air following me

with its waltzing particles that

align in a sacred circle 

around the center of our Souls.

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Seeking Relationship in the Setting of Advanced Dementia

If we come seeking to make contact, to be in relationships with people who are living with late-stage dementia, we must believe personhood persists despite cognitive deficits. Lives are not defined by diagnoses.  Persons living with advanced cognitive impairment are not empty shells drained dry of the content of their humanity.

Realizing that the ability to communicate effectively with words may have been lost, we must hone our multi-sensory listening skills and heighten awareness of non-verbal cues, aligning ourselves to receive and respond appropriately to these messages.  Non-verbal cues may carry emotional content; we should acknowledge and validate this content in our responses.

Our stance should be one of openness, vulnerability, authenticity and non-judgement, and we should expect to find a human being in front of us who has a story that needs to be appreciated.  This story, with its history, its present, and yes, its future, is laid out before us in the form of one who needs us to bring our best self to the interaction.

The language of kindness, gentleness, presence, mindfulness, silence, and peace will speak when words fail.  Non-threatening touch, being mindful of response, can effectively communicate warmth and good intention.  Resisting reactivity, we should validate the emotional content of their expression, but refrain from mirroring anxiety or agitation, instead using smiles, gentle eye contact, soft singing or humming, or props to create a non-threatening environment.

We must quieten the hypercognitive chatter of the world in which we live, seeking instead a state of wakeful stillness and present moment centeredness, opening the all-seeing eye of our inner nature to join the reality of another person’s existence – a person whose inner nature is of the same basic substance as our own.  We must dare to embrace our own vulnerability – our own fear of mortality, our own desire for safe anchor in the familiar harbor of home, remembering they have the same deep need for safety and familiarity.

It is essential to understand the importance of reciprocity in this relationship: it cannot be all “give” with no “getting back.”  The fire of life inside them can be felt if we get close enough, if we become perceptive and unencumbered enough to feel it.  And it will thus kindle our own.

The impact and integrity of this interaction has much to do with our intentionality: we must believe relationship is possible, that communication can occur, that the burden of living can be shared, and that moments of connection matter, even if the main content of this time is silence.  Importantly, it is a living, breathing silence, made sacred in the sharing.

We come as seekers, as believers, holding one another accountable only to be as fully human as we can be in whatever physical or cognitive state we may be found.  If not already apparent, this exercise has as much to do with seeking the core of our own humanity as it does seeking theirs.  Communion is the treasure that awaits.

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A Lament for Danny Terry

Went down to the river.
Down amongst the White Oaks
to the singing shoals at Mule Bend.
Sat there on a flat-topped stone
with lichen patterns we loved.
Looking, I tried to read them.
Their language somehow changed.
Danny Terry’s flown away.

Mama made a dress she said I’d wear one day.
Said when I met him, I’d know.
He’d be the one to wade out and get me.
There’d be others. But none would know my Name.
Danny Terry’s flown away.

Made it with his hands. Hardwood from the mill.
Sanded smooth and oiled. Hung it ‘cross a low limb.
Swung real squeaky on Sunday afternoons.
Room enough for him and me. Swinging. Slow.
Danny Terry’s flown away.

Found a dove once, in the woods.
“Broke like me,” he said. And bound up its wing.
If it flew again, I never knew.
Danny Terry’s flown away.

Clods barely cooled by the Fall breeze.
Seems we just stood there, looking down.
A lone petal fell in beside him.
The last one left of me that day.
Now lichens line the letters of his name.
Danny Terry’s flown away.

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