This Valentine’s Day millions of couples from around the world will be showing their love and appreciation for their significant other with flowers, chocolates, cards and gifts.
One of my favourite days of the year last year was Valentine’s Day, where I had the privilege of joining a Valentine’s Day dinner dance with couples where one had a diagnosis of dementia. I witnessed the hope and need to enjoy closeness with one’s partner transcending illness and the changed roles that caring creates.
However, for many people Valentine’s Day may trigger painful memories of a relationship that has changed after their loved one is diagnosed with dementia.
It is important to remind ourselves that it is possible to find ways to maximise your relationship and companionship through the journey of life with dementia, just as we do in other journeys through illness. I saw this at our dinner dance last year.
We all have certain ways we adjust and cope with change. A diagnosis of dementia will bring big changes to your life and to the relationships you have with people you love. Although some of the change that comes with a diagnosis of dementia will be painful, if we continue to stay open to the possibilities of change, we might begin to see what it can add to our life rather than just experience what we see it taking away. This is not to underestimate the impacts of a diagnosis of dementia. It is a heartbreak each time, but it is important – as with other things in life – to remember the things that don’t change, some of the constants that have characterised your relationship for years and decades.
It is hard to let go of how things might have been – the pressure of this for everyone involved can be substantial. The person with dementia feels the pressure of trying to be how they were, live up to a standard or expectation and feel a sense of failure and incompetence if they cannot. Change means change, and this means that things will not be exactly as they were. Although often challenging, acceptance can be a helpful and positive quality in times of change.
Try not to hold onto things as they used to be. Although some parts of your relationship might stay the same, some parts will change. This is inevitable and will happen with any big impact in someone’s life. Embracing this change can strengthen and grow your relationship.
Many couples will tell the story that facing life’s struggles together has strengthened them or added a new dimension to the love and companionship they share. Adversity produces strength in ways that complacency doesn’t.
Being with a person with severe dementia requires us to cast off our norms and step into their world on a level of intimacy we rarely expect of ourselves. Dementia can teach us about being human. International author and dementia communication specialist Michael Verde states “The living human body is always communicating and thus is always longing for a loving response. People with dementia need to feel that they belong and matter no less (by an ounce) than we do, and no amount of cognitive deterioration alters that biological and spiritual fact. Healing the dis-ease of dementia takes love, affection and intimacy.”
Acknowledge your feelings. They don’t go away by being pushed aside or ignored. If we have trouble acknowledging our own feelings, we may then also have trouble acknowledging those of the people we are supporting. Speak with a counsellor or someone who you feel safe and comfortable to share your vulnerabilities.
It can be easy to lose the essence of a relationship if it becomes all about functional care and day to day tasks. Finding ways to nourish and nurture your relationship beyond this will add to the quality of life for both of you.
Here are a few ideas to make your Valentine’s Day special:
- Look through old photo albums and find the photos that bring back the emotional memories
- Bake a cake or cook a meal together
- Go and see a romantic movie or watch a romantic DVD
- Take a trip to the florist and buy some fresh flowers
- Enjoy a meal out at your favourite restaurant
- Enjoy a walk together
- Most of all, remember the bonds that have held your relationship through the years, and celebrate all that has been and is.
- Remember that someone living with dementia may not remember what you have said or done but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Tell those you care about that you love them every day, not just on Valentine’s Day. This includes, parents, siblings, children and friends as well as our spouse and lover. The greatest joy in life is to love and be loved.