Dealing with Grief and Preventing Dementia... For both, it may be remember smiles and hugs for everyone.
It's been a tough week. When I created the blog category “Life Happens”, I didn't really expect that it would be happening to me. There is perhaps a lesson in that for me (too). This isn't really about me after all, though it is human to focus on ourselves first in times of grief and loss. This is a story about my mom.
My mom was a good person. She got early onset dementia. Not from anything she did wrong, though below you can learn more about how to prevent that. People in a retirement home took great care of her. They say she always had a smile and a hug for everyone. Since she was about 1300 miles away, I only visited her twice, not as often as I wanted. We chatted a lot, and joined in a lot of activities like bingo and bean bag toss and played with the therapy dogs. But I did write her an actual physical letter every couple of weeks with a SASE (She couldn't check email or handle spam calls on a phone. She could read a physical letter, though, and sometimes replied).
It's not like I knew what to write, really, but I just asked some basic questions like: what kind of birds do you see outside? What activities have you done lately? Then in each I told mom about my container garden or the wild flowers blooming in the yard and what I'd been doing lately. Just chatting, really. To be clear, here, it wasn't my amazing writing skills that were important. It was just staying in touch that mattered. Mom enjoyed telling people about the letters and re-reading them. It made her feel more connected. Strange silver lining of dementia: the more she forgot she'd already read the letters, the more she could enjoy reading them again.
Here's that slight detour on the science on preventing dementia. It seems to be three main categories:
1 Physical exercise and fitness
2 Mental exercise and fitness
3 Socialization and well-being
First, physical exercise and fitness improves your chances to prevent/delay by decades dementia. Dr. Edlund's article in Psychology Today calls it “biological intelligence”. He recommends staying fit, exercising, and eating healthy. All of that is good for feeling better, now, so the chance to stay more mentally alert later in life is a wonderful bonus.
Also, mental exercise and fitness appear to work much the same to prevent dementia. A good rundown is Delilah Falcon's article on symptomfind. Full disclosure, I couldn't find her credentials or sources. A much more scholarly article by Margaret Gatz walks through the science. Since much of it relies on studies (not controlled experiments), it's tougher to know for sure. She also cautions against blaming people for getting dementia because they didn't keep mentally active. A good point, but she still summarizes that education and mental challenges correspond to lower chances of Alzheimer's and dementia, even though scientists aren't positive why.
Finally, socializing and taking care of yourself seems to help. The New York Times had an article years ago by Pam Belluck about Dr. David Snowden's Nun Study. It's still cited and debated today in Alzheimer's research, closely related to dementia. The nuns have dramatically longer than average life spans AND lower rates of Alzheimer's and dementia. (An average lifespan in their 90's, and most are walking or cycling and doing puzzles right up to their death.) It's another study, not a controlled experiment, so the biggest weakness is that scientists can't say for certain which of the factors, or in what combination, cause the good results. But the nuns keep physically fit and eat healthy. They keep mentally active with puzzles and games. They socialize with each other and their outreach programs, and most are optimistic and in good spirits as part of their faith. They donate their brains to science after their deaths, so scientists are sure of the results, just not as sure about the causes of their better than average health. Be good to yourself now.
Back to my mom. She was in the retirement center for awhile. Then she had a big stroke. Again, not so much from bad choices on her part (and the nursing home did a good job with making sure she ate healthy.) Then mom passed away. A nurse wrote me back to say that mom responded to the letters even when she wouldn't to anything else.
I did some research on grief and loss.
There are some resources out there. These can be:
Here's a quick rundown of the five stages of grieving. Not everyone experiences these in the same order or all five. The main point is that people are not as alone as they may feel, and most people could use a little help and support. The forms are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Denial can also be the initial shock that it can't be real. Bargaining often includes “if only” things like “If only we had gotten a second opinion.” Depression is usually the normal sadness. Julie Axelrod explains more in her concise article.
Another site, Helpguide.org has a more detailed article (with a PDF version). It emphasizes that everyone grieves differently for different amounts of time. There is no standard or ideal way or time table. Also, the article points out that people trying to comfort you may feel very awkward, but they mean well. Try to be with the people who care about you. Also, the helpguide.org article gives the signs that a person might need more help, and has things like crisis center helpline numbers just in case.
Anyway, I'm sad, of course, but I don't have a lot of regrets. I did what I could. May I suggest that you spend time with the people you love? Any way you choose to communicate would probably be welcome. A phone call, email, or even an actual letter might work if visiting is impractical. Chances are it would mean a lot to the people that you care about. You could always start small. For example, you could contact one person this week.
May you and your loved ones be well,
Axelrod, Julie. “The 5 Stages of Grief and Loss” PsychCentral.com. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ 8 Feb. 2019.
Belluck, Pam. “Nun's Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging.” New York Times Archives. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/07/us/nuns-offer-clues-to-alzheimer-s-and-aging.html 7 May 2001.
“Coping with Grief and Loss”. Helpguide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm
Edlund, Matthew. “Preventing Dementia”. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-rest/201804/preventing-dementia 12 Apr 2018.
Falcon, Delilah. “10 Essential Tips on Preventing Dementia”. Symptomfind.com. https://www.symptomfind.com/health/how-to-prevent-dementia/ 7 May 2016.
Gatz, Margaret. “Educating the Brain to Avoid Dementia: Can Mental Exercise Prevent Alzheimer Disease?” PLOS Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC545200/ 25 Jan. 2005.
How many plates can you keep spinning all at once? It was a silly talent on the Ed Sullivan show. But it's an apt visual metaphor for many college students' lives. How do you get it all done? How do you achieve any kind of balance in your life? Balancing even one plate and spinning it on a stick is hard work. As soon as it slows down, it will fall. So you have to keep adding spin to the plate. Delicately, though: if you spin the plate too hard or not quite right, it will fall. Then run to the next one to keep it spinning. Soon you'd be staggering around, out of balance... this seems like an insane, frantic way to live. Are you staggering from task to task trying to get it all done? Want to know a better way?
The flexibility of college, especially community college, lets people try to do a lot of things in life all at once. You might be working, maybe even full time. You might also be parenting, raising a family. By my count, that's three spinning plates right there. You do know why 12 hours of college classes is considered full time, right? Just in case, here's that math. For every hour in class, the college administration assumes that you'll need about two hours out of class for study, writing, etc. So 12 x 2 = 24 hours outside of class a week, plus the 12 hours in class = 36 hours a week. Plus clubs, sports, social life, routine chores, and all the other things you want to do.
The secret, then, is how to get it all done while staying balanced and healthy. How can students keep all of these parts of their lives going? Let's look at five ideas now. First, it takes clarity of purpose. It may help to define life roles. These are the big areas of your life. Mine include teacher, writer, son, and so on. I first encountered the idea many years ago and can't remember where, but University of Berkeley has a simple worksheet here (https://hrweb.berkeley.edu/files/attachments/Balancing_Life_Roles.pdf). Steve Aitchison in his blog advises limiting the time in each role and consciously switching to help achieve balance. (https://www.stevenaitchison.co.uk/what-are-your-roles-in-life/).
Choose the ones that are important to you (of course they're important to you. Just be clear which ones are.) Then each activity should help meet one of those life roles. You may find some activities that don't speak to any of those life roles. A little play and recreation are reinvigorating. On the other hand, if I notice that I spent three hours watching TV today that didn't really even provide much relaxation, I should cut down on my viewing. Looking at what you do with life roles in mind will probably point out a few places where you might spend the time better. Alternately, realizing that you covered the most important roles today in the time you had may give you some peace when a few small things remain undone.
Once you're clear on what life roles are important to you, you will be clearer in purpose. Your purpose is to fulfill each life role that you've chosen. That right there should also be motivating. If you're raising a family, for example, you're likely to remember that you're going to college partly for them, to provide for them. (And bonus round! You'll set a hugely positive example by trying your best to learn that will influence your children to be lifelong learners. This is way better than just telling them to stay in school.) When you remember why you're doing all these things, they get easier. Instead of mindless chores, each action you take is a step closer to achieving your purpose. Instead of burning energy fighting procrastination and feeling resentment, you've got all that energy to make progress.
Secondly, organization lets you work effectively and efficiently. How should you organize? You're going to have to experiment a bit to find what works best for you. I've written some about organization elsewhere in this blog. The short recap: manage your attention. That is, save your best attention for your most serious planning and studying, and save your lowest attention levels for very routine things. For most of my organizing, I use a couple of phone apps (calender and a list program called... List. Look for the red check-mark on a white and blue box. You could do the same with paper. Some way to track events (scheduled at a certain day and time) and some way to track tasks (things to do today) will help tremendously. It needs to be simple enough to use and to update that you actually use it. Then you update it, and then you can trust it.
Third, stop making excuses or thinking of reasons why not. Maybe you very rarely make excuses (you're closer to success on this than me, then.) Maybe there are few reasons why you can't do something. (Again, you're way ahead of me here.) I sincerely believe that you can succeed. “But you don't know me,” I imagine you might say.
I don't know you, personally. But I believe everyone can succeed...if they stop listing all the reasons why they can't. Somehow in our culture we've slid into a common practice of making excuses for students, for telling them reasons why they can't do things. Worst of all, for telling them that it's OK not to do well, OK not to even really try. I say this with all the empathy and understanding and loving kindness that I can: it's not OK.
You want to succeed, to achieve your goals, to get what you need and want. These aren't just material things. You want to take care of yourself, stand on your own two feet, and feel good about yourself. Maybe you want to help other people and make the world a better place. Awesome! And you can do awesome things. But not if you don't keep trying because you have some label that makes it OK not to try very hard. Yes, people have some real challenges. Turns out, everyone has challenges, though mostly we see only our own.
The playing field is not level. It will never be level. What can you earn? What can you accomplish? How can you meet your needs, and the needs of those who depend on you? How can you help? By doing your best. That's all anyone can do, and sometimes my best is pretty crummy. Instead of limiting myself with reasons why I can't do something, wouldn't it be more effective for me to work past, around, or through my “challenges”? Would it be better if I didn't worry too much about any labels and just skipped right to the problem-solving? Would it be better for you for you to do the same?
Now maybe you're thinking I've gone too far. That social anxiety, autism, attention disorders, or some other label is a real problem, not a “challenge”. I'm not arguing otherwise. What I'm saying, though, is that you are more effective trying your best to get things done. To try your best, I recommend that you skip the labels and reasons why you can't do something... and go do what you need to do. The only help those labels might offer is maybe other people have figured out some effective tactics or workarounds that could help you. Adapt to get it done. If you're choosing the tasks that you believe are important to reach your goals and fulfill your life roles, then you're on the right track. Of course you can play to your strengths. Of course you can choose how to reach your goals.
For example, one day in college, I found my roommate (labeled ADHD) writing a history essay, building a 3D architectural model, discussing something complex online, and watching birds out the window... pretty much all at the same time. I watched him spend a few minutes on each task and switch to another one. I don't think I could do it like that at all. But he skipped past any labels or reasons why he couldn't do those things well...and did them in his own way. By the way, he earned A's on the essay and model.
Fourth, relaxation and recreation are important. It's tough to be well balanced in life while doing so many different things. As much as you can though, try to balance the focused work with some relaxed play. It's helps you recharge and work better. But it also helps you unwind. Even a few minutes to enjoy some music or a pretty day or a game helps keep me centered.
Also, recently I've been reading a lot about being here now. An awareness of the present moment and oneself sounds very simple. It is, but it's not something most of us do much. We tend to carry around the past like a weight or worry about the future. We tend to remember where we were or plan where we will be. A much better way to achieve some balance is to just be here now. A lot of mindfulness meditation is designed to help with this. Mindfulness meditation is originally a Buddhist practice, but it can be done without any religion overtones at all. It's more of a practice of developing the mind. My favorite way is a phone app called Buddify (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with Buddhism as a religion).
If you want more about mindfulness, there are two more books I recommend, each with a caveat. The first is Waking Up by Sam Harris. He's a neurosurgeon, philosopher, and atheist. Which brings me to the caveat: he is apologetically blunt about how he thinks all religions are superstitious nonsense. He's equal opportunity about it. I needed a bit of a thick skin to acknowledge what he says about religion in order to understand the really simple, step by step guide he offers to mindfulness. He also makes a good case that there's more to reality than just what is explained by science or dogma.
The second book is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. He offers a lot of advice and simple ways to be here now, to achieve presence and awareness in ways that most people don't. Why would that matter? By being here now, we can feel the uncaused joy of being and unshakable peace. Joy and peace, yeah, that's worth looking into. One of the most encouraging things is that he believes everyone can achieve this transformative awareness right away, not in some potential future after decades of asceticism. The caveat is that some of what he says sounds way, way out there to me; he embraces mysticism. The book format is question and answer, though, so the reader can easily just skip to the next question and answer if one sounds too weird. The Audible version has answers read by the author and questions posed by some of his friends and students, which is a nice bonus.
Last, you're not alone. You don't have to do this alone. You don't have to figure out everything by yourself, or do it all by yourself. Tutoring centers, teachers, classmates, online resources. There are lots of people and things to help there. Family and friends (the ones who want to help) are good resources too. Raising a family? Renegotiate chores to free up an hour or two more to study. Maybe you give up an hour of idle entertainment for yourself in order to spend quality time with your kids or spouse. A success coach is a good thing, too. Want someone to help check progress on goals and set new goals? Join the mailing list, and we can do that.
Sometimes communities and churches offer good support and resources, too. Look and ask around. We're all stronger together. Your success in supporting yourself and helping people benefits the rest of us, too. You bring value to the community you choose to work in, so it's enlightened self interest to help you out some, too.
In conclusion, there are five things you can do right now to live more in balance while you try to achieve many things at once. Define your life roles, which will help you clarify your purpose. Manage your attention. (Check out my other blog articles.) Practice mindfulness with the Buddify app (or some other simple daily activity). You can read much more deeply on the topic if you want. Finally, work in groups! Informal peer mentoring is powerful, and some structured mentoring or life coaching is even better. Finally, this is just one article on balance, which many people find challenging and many others have written entire books about. What have I missed? What would you add?
Aitchison, Steve. “What Are Your Roles in Life?” Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. 2014.
“Balancing Life Roles” University of Berkeley, University Health Services.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Namaste Publishing,
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Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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