At a party yesterday, a friend mentioned that when his mother was in the advanced stage of Alzheimers, he and his daughter became closer from coordinating his mom’s care. It reminded me of when I worked in the activities department at a skilled nursing facility. Visitors would often comment while looking at all of the residents in their wheelchairs, “I never want to live like this. What’s the point of living like this?”

Of course no one wants to be a declining patient, barely aware of her surroundings, floating in and out of sleep between meals and diaper changes. Yet I have always stressed that while these individuals are not cognizant of the passage of time nor what is going on around them, they have immense value for the rest of us. They are teaching their caregivers and family members about patience and compassion. When we interact with or care for a terminally ill or advanced dementia person, we can learn about empathy, kindness, inner strength, advocacy, and dignity at levels we probably never would otherwise know. These frail people are our unwitting teachers. They are helping us to be better people, to grow spiritually and emotionally, and to support change when needed. We take what we learn and we help others with a greater compassion than before our lessons until it is our turn to become the teacher as part of our journey.

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