Dementia changes people and changes relationships, sometimes for the better. In the latest edition of Newsweek (September 22, 2008), author Sara Davidson shares her story about her relationship with her mother who became less demanding and more accepting of life as her cognitive impairment progressed, much to the surprise of the family. This is not the first time we've heard the story of a relationship improving with progressive cognitive impairment.

My friend Robert Green is quoted representing the standard view that experts are only interested in negative behaviors. Yet carers such as Ann Davidson, Elinor Fuchs and Judith Levine who have written books (and are in our book) about their experiences know that relationships change in complex ways, some very much for the good.

In Sarah's piece I am described as a practicing Buddhist who wants the world's religions to attend more to the challenges of dementia. Just as they provide perspectives on life and death so too they should attend to the challenges of cognitive aging.

I consider myself an amateur (note the root of that word is "love") Buddhist, not a regular practitioner. I have studied and practiced meditative approaches, for example in Japan and at Naropa University in Colorado – a wonderful place where the spirit of learning is very much alive). Buddhism is both a science of mind and a spiritual practice that recognizes that false expectations and personal desires are at the root of suffering.

As quoted in Newsweek and from my own conversations with him, Oliver Sacks, too, believes that interesting parallels can be drawn between "being present" and emptying the mind in Buddhism and the mental state of dementia. I am not suggesting that enlightenment and dementia are the same, but rather that thinking deeply about their relationships may enlighten our attitudes about the cognitive challenges we all face as human beings who age. Just as fully embracing our mortality makes us appreciate life deeply, can reflecting profoundly on dementia help us recognize our own intellectual limitations as sentient creatures. Can we become more heart-full and wise as a result?Moreover in the daily struggles with cognitive impairment, meditation may be of practical benefit in helping people with dementia address issues of attention and anxiety. Open your ownmind and heart to broader and deeper ways of thinking and perhaps your fears and suffering will be alleviated.


About the Authors

Peter Whitehouse

Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD is a geriatric neurologist, cognitive neuroscientist, and deep bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of The Myth of Alzheimer's.

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