In times of distress, anxiety, fear or grief, having a toolkit of simple strategies that can help take us out of our worrying mind and into the present moment can help us rebalance our emotional state.
A little about my dad
I remember my dad telling me once that every day of his life had been a struggle for sanity. Poverty, domestic violence, alcohol and mental health issues had been part of his childhood family life. I thought of him as one of the most resilient people I knew and here he was at his most vulnerable, having just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and feeling like all the hope had been taken from his remaining life.
Now I see that it was because of his struggles, both external and internal, that he was so resilient. He had learnt or had taught himself strategies and had put in place structures that helped him function and live a happy life.
He had at least one deeply close and trusting relationship in his life (with my mum) that was completely accepting and available to him.
He had many other significant relationships – with his children and his friends.
He kept a rigorous routine to his day, getting up early and eating a hearty breakfast.
He had a strong sense of social justice and a stubborn righteousness in him to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised and the disempowered.
He had a deep connection with nature and with animals. He always had a dog; interacting with and walking the dog was a stress-relief mechanism for him.
And he had a good sense of humour and a love of Bob Dylan – singing loudly and out of tune to Dylan helped dad blow off steam.
I guess you might say my dad was idealistic – he believed that life could improve for all. It was his ideals and his sense of hope that gave him the strength to overcome adversity in his life.
Looking, at that moment, at his ‘Golden Years’ as years of forgetting and of losing himself, bit by bit, were terrifying to him. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Dad was awash with hopelessness and anxiety.
My dad has taught me so much through my life and has supported me every step of the way. I knew of simple things that can help us with anxiety…I shared some these with him.
If you experience overwhelming emotion, stress or anxiety in your day, take a moment to try these:
Describe what you are doing. You might be cooking a meal, cleaning the bathroom, or at work. Describe what you are doing to yourself (in your head or out loud), in as much detail as possible. Use your 5 senses (sight, sound, tough, hearing, taste) to guide you. Here’s an example: I am at my computer. The computer screen is large and I see words appearing as I type on the keyboard. The keyboard is black, and I hear the tap, tap, tapping as my fingers move. There is music in the background, calm meditation-type tracks chosen because I thought they would be soothing and help me get into a nice writing space. Etc… Keep describing to yourself in as much detail as you can.
Rub your hands together until they warm. Concentrate on the feeling of skin on skin, fingers and palms together, on the warmth between your palms as you rub your hands together. Rub them faster and faster so the heat builds. Then clap your hands together. Hear the sharp sound of the clap. Feel the sting. Repeat.
Sit up straight with an upright back and stamp your feet. What does your back feel like to sit up straight? What parts of your body are you using as you stamp your feet? What do the feet feel like to be stamped. What sound do they make?
These activities are not long-term fixes in and of themselves, but they do help interrupt our thought processes. They create space between us and our thoughts and this can help us to disconnect from feelings of anxiety or negative mental rumination.
These simple activities (coupled with a range of other strategies) can form part of a broad pathway to a greater sense of calm and equilibrium. If you are feeling anxious, stressed, fearful, or have been struggling with a negative internal soundtrack or mental rumination, try these and see if they bring you some relief. If your feelings persist, find someone to talk to…a friend or family member, someone in your community who you trust, or a trained professional such as a counsellor.
I like to think these strategies helped my dad during that time in his life. Now that his Alzheimer’s has progressed, I will never know because he does not remember. The beauty of this disease, of the forgetting, is that he has, for the most part, now forgotten that he has Alzheimer’s, and so finds greater levels of daily happiness as a result. He is soft and gentle and funny, and I love him for these things.
Dementia is tough on everyone: the individual, partners, children, broader family, friends, community. Reach out if you need support through this journey.