He’s all by himself on Christmas in that depressing assisted living center. You feel bad for him. But you’ve got your own family to think of and all the stressors of the season to go with it. And it is all on your shoulders: the food, the gifts, the decorations, parties and the thank-yous. Plus, it is such a downer to go there, see all those lost, lonely and sick people; smell the musty and stinky smells with nothing to say after, “hello”. Not to mention the diseases you could catch. You can’t afford to catch anything, and that contagious hospital MERSA bug scares you to death. You want to avoid the whole thing but it makes you feel so guilty that you think of it like a chore, even if you feel pity for him. After all, you never know when he might die and you want to make sure you’ve treated him with dignity. You feel like such a bad person who has lost the true meaning of Christmas just for thinking these awful selfish thoughts.
You are not the only one.
People in assisted living centers feel isolated and excluded. Residents may seem calm and peaceful on the outside but it may be the result of a permanent ambient despair. It would be so much easier to avoid them and not have to think about their decline toward mortality. But what if I told you there are riches there beyond your biggest dreams.
What if I told you that in 90 minutes you can take a quick vacation to your own spiritual part of yourself and feel connection, compassion and love in a way that is unavailable in the everyday, rush-rush material world in which you live.
Let me show you how to break through the camouflage of guilt, pity, sacrifice and dread. If you only knew the riches you can have there. And for most assisted living centers these spiritual riches are there for the taking; gifts waiting for the clever eye and open heart.
You speak an everyday physical language of people, places and things. They speak a spiritual language of love, character and values. They have nothing to lose. They already have… lost, that is. Lost their autonomy, their health, many relationships, connections, voice, choice and will. They have had to, out of necessity, built their life from the bottom up, from nothing. They have had to use memories, values, beliefs and courage, spiritual words, to move their lives forward. They have done this without the bounce-back qualities from childhood. Armed with only waning resilience, a clean spirit, and the love of life, they hibernate their souls in these assisted living centers.
So go. For 90 minutes hibernate with them.
1. Merge with their lane.
When you are with them let yourself experience nothing, space and void. Slow down to an ultra slow pace and minimal intensity. Put yourself second, them first. Value where they are and join them.
They are still. Reflective. Introspective. It is their winter and their body is hibernating; nourishing only the seed of themselves. They can dance with their internal fears, review all that they learned from all the responses in their life. They can recall the wisdom they gleaned from their experience in their life.
Allow yourself to merge with them, feel with them, get in their shoes as an exercise for your compassion, even if you cannot make things better for them.
Piggyback on their experience of “winter” and dance with your own fears of mortality. Be reflective, self introspective. Be still. Block out the external world. Bond with self. If you were to die today what would have given your own life meaning? What did you yourself learn so far here on earth? What is the essence of your own life meaning? Take the inventory of your own life and share it with them. If they are verbal and have a spark of energy with your presence, ask their advice like you would Dear Abby. Do not interrupt. Make an audio of it with your cell phone.
2. Bond with them.
Bond with their 5 Senses: Touch, Hearing, Tasting, Smelling, Seeing and Taste. Here are a few examples:
Taste: Fill their water bottle with fruit, herbs, and vegetables to give experience of the 5 flavors: Bitter, sweet, pungent, sour, salty or umami. Dab it on their tongue.
Hearing: Play their favorite song from a pinnacle life passage moment like a wedding, a birth, a first dance, bar mitzvah or a quincinera . Let them share the memory with you if they can speak.
Sight: Look through their old photo album with them and let them recall the stories and memories. Ask them about people in the photos and memories they have had even if they are non-verbal. Carry on a conversation with them even if they say nothing. Share your idea of the memory, even if they cannot.
Touch: Feel their parchment-like skin and enjoy the soft silky feeling of their skin. It is a lot like a newborns soft skin. Massage gently their hands and fingers. Push together the joints of their hands and wrists. Or just hold their hand softly in your own as if it is a baby bird in a very still fashion.
Smell: Make a dish you both have shared, even if they cannot eat it, and let them smell it so it brings back a memory. Share their memories associated with smell. Or bring in a scent known to clean out a room with stagnation like sage, frankincense, etc. It will freshen their space and clean out old musty suffocative scents that make them feel confined.
Help to bond them to themselves. You will bond to them. You will find you bond you to your own self. Experience the 5 senses their way. Ride their wave, their senses. Capture their life meaning. Capture your own life meaning in the process. Get their advice. Learn from their wisdom, from their adversity, from their experience.
Give them stimuli that will trigger their self-review. Use the 5 senses to access their memories and your own. Let them remember what gave their lives value, meaning. Let them eek out, distill down to what was and is most important in life to them. Grab it for yourself too.
3. Speak a spiritual language with them.
Speak with them about character, values, and beliefs. Speak spiritual language.
Give them a memory to recall. Walk the path of memory with them. Ask them the moral to their life story. Clean out. Make space. Make void. Take away all outside stimuli. Block the outside world, the irrelevant stimuli that may be important to you but not to them. Experience the feeling of nothing, of closing down, keeping out.
4. Play in their spiritual playground with them.
Breathe next to them. Hear their breath. Sync your own breath with theirs in tempo, length and force and intensity. Lie next to them and share your warmth. Brush their hair. Massage their scalp. Stroke their forehead. Kiss the tip of their nose. Trace their wrinkles with a very light touch and your forefinger.
5. Say their Name out loud frequently at least 3 times in your visit with them.
Their name, their full birth name resonates with their nervous system and soothes them. Nicknames and endearments will trigger memory but not their own nervous system. Both are nice, just the former is deeper.
Remember the bedridden’s perspective of the holidays. It is even more stressful for them because they are unable to reciprocate; they have no energy, attention or autonomy. They often feel weak, helpless and out of control. They remember how it used to be for them at the holidays, and they are comparing it to today. There is a feeling of resigned loss for them as they compare. You on the other hand don’t want to leave them out. But you don’t know how to include them in the joy of the season. That is why it is so hard & why people want to avoid them and end up feeling guilt, pity, that it’s a chore, or they fear their own finite mortality. You talk a physical language. They are talking less a physical language and more a spiritual language. For them it is less about separateness, uniqueness, individuality and more about commonality, union, intangible language of love, character values etc.
Read my next blog for 20 Precious Holiday Gifts You Can Give The Sick and Bedridden: Part 2, and make this holiday season fill your heart and theirs too.