Me, My Mum and Dementia

I was invited to give a presentation at an aged care centre, to bring awareness to the benefits and support that massage can provide. I did not know what I was going to talk about until I stood before fifty or so residents and staff and started sharing what felt right based on my own experience.

My mother suffered from dementia and she eventually came to a point when she no longer recognised me or knew my name. Having a conversation only created confusion for her. So, I used to hold her hands and then gently massage them. The feeling between us re-awakened and she called me daughter!

Could it be that we have become very far removed from safe and nurturing touch and especially so, as we grow older?

It all began when I visited her with a gift of hand lotion. At first it was awkward and she did not like being touched – perhaps the closeness was too much for her, perhaps she had become very removed and isolated from touch and any true loving connection, especially in a nursing home where the only physical contact was to assist her in everyday personal care needs, which was not always pleasant. In the beginning she struggled and her resistance came up, then she began to relax, melt and fall into a light sleep … and within fifteen minutes she became peaceful and her restless nervous hands were still, just being.

On another visit, again she did not recognise me, but her eyes lit up when I held the bottle of hand lotion in my hands and she said, “Yes, please!” We were communicating!

A few weeks later I observed her in a repetitive anxious state along with restless legs and lack of sleep. I wrapped her feet in steaming warm towels and then gently massaged the hardness from her legs and feet. She relaxed and calmed down and slept like a baby afterwards.

My mother had spent her formative years in Wales during the Great Depression and then the Second World War, and these experiences had shaped her. It was obvious how stifled her life had become. She had learned how to survive but found herself unable to see outside this wall she had erected around herself, always worried about money and stockpiling food: she lived in a climate of fear and poverty consciousness.

Eventually, dementia had taken away her memories, worries and her life-long struggle with asthma.

Yes, even the asthma was cured, leaving her with a wide-eyed childlike innocence, and we became playful and funny in each other’s company.

Not many words were needed to communicate and yet, we were communicating heart to heart in a true way, and our new relationship had begun through a gentle loving touch that would re-connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the harmony within.

This experience with my mother has enabled me to develop a new opportunity in working with people who have dementia, as well as with their families. I might add that it wasn’t always an easy road, sometimes to the point of exhaustion where I would almost lose my way. Usually, when I used to feel sorry or sympathetic towards another whom I perceived to be suffering, I would get drained and exhausted. But to shut myself down, cold hard and detached and to not feel, did not work for me either.

During this time, I had much personal healing and support and I began to understand the need for more loving care, nurturing and healing within myself. It was only then that I was truly able to develop an understanding of how to truly care for others. Through my own healing, I learned to observe what is going on for others and to not absorb that into my body.

I can accept that the person is exactly where they are on their own journey, just as I am on mine, and there is no way I would want to interfere with their process, change them or provide a safety net that prevents them from feeling where they are at. There is nothing to fix, I simply love them just the way they are and they can feel that, too.

It is now possible for me to offer my assistance and true care without the entanglement and emotional attachment I once had. I am more loving with myself, more playful and able to get out of my own way and offer a true service in all I do which includes supporting dementia patients with massage.

4 thoughts on “Me, My Mum and Dementia”

  1. Beautiful what you wrote about dementia and your mother.
    And it’s so true, we can’t change them or try to make them better.
    Touch is the most important thing that helps them connect. I have been working with a client for 8 years who has severe dementia. She doesn’t always understand what you say, the words change when she talks. In simple language, sometimes she understands. But when I met her, she was cold, hard and very distant person which has changed a lot now. She used to be hard on herself and her body and did not like to be touched. In recent years she has become very happy, she has a big smile when I come in, and immediately when I hold her hand, she is very happy, starts talking in three or four languages and feels seen. It is our light, the joy she feels, and to be simple with them makes them feel good. When I smile she quickly feels safe. I notice that after showering when I massage her with body lotion that she is more present in her body and is very calm afterwards. Thank you for sharing,

  2. Thank you Yvonne, and writer of this article for expressing so tenderly what is rarely spoken about – the value of gentle touch and massage in the care of people with dementia and elders and its potential to transform clients. In doing so you have imprinted dementia care work beautifully and removed the stigma of current perceptions. When a client loses vocal expression, we continue to communicate with them, often non-verbally and in the simplest of ways as you both share. Confirmation of the gold within us all when we observe and are responsive to clients in our care.

  3. My mum also had dementia towards the end of her life. I wonder whether there may be some connection with how their generation dealt with their past in the Depression and WW2, because she also didn’t appear to like close physical contact. But in her latter years, she loved a back massage from me whenever we met, and eventually accepted a hug when we parted. Our movements and touch overcomes the barriers if words don’t come to be expressed.

  4. Thank you very much writer for sharing your walk beside your mother. I could feel deeply through your words the importance being near to elders.
    Hand massage is at the same time close and a distance that is good enough for the person to not be afraid of the proximity or intimacy.
    Few years ago I cared for an old lady that wasn’t not keen to share what she was feeling and basically I understood that was because she was not used to it.
    Every morning during her body care I used to wash and then massage her back with body lotion. She has never expressed or commented anything about this but it was not needed because although there were no words I could feel the communication that was happening between us. A moment in deep love and care that these days I still remember and cherish as the most beautiful and tender moments I shared with her.

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