Eye Speak to You
“Look at me!”
These words get your attention, don’t they? An imperative phrase, this expression makes you look up to see who’s speaking. Something about that sentence just stops you in your tracks and makes you do just that: look directly at the speaker.
These were the words that could strike terror in your heart when you were a kid if your mom said them; you knew you were busted because there she was using that tone as she demanded, “Look at me!” And as soon as she saw those peepers of yours, she knew she had your attention. Now, mom’s eyes seemed to say, NOW we can communicate clearly!
Eye contact. There’s something about looking at someone, meeting their gaze, and being able to decipher what they mean by the expression in their eyes. It is easily one of the most powerful forms of communication among humans, establishing a rather definitive “tell” which conveys how a person feels—confident or intimidated, self-assured or ashamed, ecstatic or angry.
So, communication is moving along nicely until your loved one receives a dementia diagnosis; after that, being able to communicate clearly starts to lose its edge. It feels like much of the traditional means of expression just won’t work anymore. But there’s good news: we still have eye contact.
Toward the end of my Grandma’s life, as she was in the very late stage of Alzheimer’s, I would sit on her bed and hold her hand as she tried to talk to me. She would utter a string of unclear words, and the few I could pick out didn’t ever seem to be connected. When the time came that our words could no longer connect us, I found I could look in Grandma’s eyes, and I could smile at her. Her weary lids would open a little wider, and I could see a flicker of recognition, followed ever so slightly by a gentle upward curve at the corner of her mouth. Even a momentary connection like that was a gift every single time it happened.
On one occasion, shortly before she passed away, she was sent to the hospital because of a fall. Even in her advanced state of dementia, her eyes told her nurse that she was more aware than it seemed:
“When I walked in, [Grandma’s] eyes caught sight of me, and her face brightened into a slight smile. The nurse noticed the change in her expression.
‘Who is that?’ she asked Grandma.
‘That’s my granddaughter,’ Grandma answered immediately, ‘and I couldn’t love her any more if she was my own daughter!’
The nurse looked at me and smiled. ‘Well, she’s been fuzzy about a lot of things, but she’s clear enough as to who you are!’”
[Excerpt from Goodnight, Sweet: A Caregiver’s Long Goodbye (Innovo Publishing) Chapter 23 “Hello, Sweet”]
Dementia is truly an ugly reality, stealing memories and abilities from its victims slowly, usually taking several years to do its dirty work. One of many difficulties for caregivers is finding a way to maintain the connection with this dear one they love so much. I encourage you to remember that eye contact is always a good thing; it forges connection and evokes emotions in both parties. Let your eyes speak; I know from experience it’s a language your loved one will understand even when all else seems lost.