Spark of Life Philosophy: Bringing Heart to Mind (Public article)

Public article

By Jane Verity © dementiacareinternational

Spark of Life is a gentle philosophy that offers a new perspective and understanding of dementia. The Spark of Life comes from the heart and is based on emotion, not just interpreting and understanding dementia with our logical mind. It shows how when we shift focus from our viewpoint to the point of view of the person with dementia, whilst engaging with empathy, it is possible to understand what otherwise seems like uncharacteristic, frustrating and upsetting behaviour.

Some of the most painful experiences of carers are the angry outbursts from the person with dementia when we try to help or redirect the person back to reality. We have come to believe that anger is a symptom of dementia and that there is nothing we can do about it except resort to medication.

However, when we shift focus from our experience to the experience of the person with dementia, and with an open heart look for the emotional reason behind angry outbursts, we find that there is always a personal, meaningful reason behind challenging behaviour.

A typical example is what might happen when we offer to help a person with dementia whilst shopping. The person is about to pay for some groceries and may have taken all their money and spread it out on the counter. As a carer you may feel a natural need to help so you say, ‘I’ll help you work out what to pay,’ whilst counting out the correct money. However, you may never get that far as the person with dementia may push you aside and chastise you using loud and clear words, ‘How dare you touch my money, this is my money and I am perfectly capable of paying for my groceries. Go away!’

From a carers perspective this reaction can be hard to understand. We may think, ‘What is wrong? I just wanted to help and I’m being told off so strongly.’ Over time this can become a vicious cycle that is wearing and hard to bear.

When we engage with the Spark of Life Philosophy, we shift our focus to the person with dementia and ask with an open heart, ‘What is the unmet emotional need behind this reaction?’ This is when we discover there is always a personal, meaningful reason behind the behaviour. Once we understand what the triggers are we can learn to avoid them, freeing the person with dementia from upsetting situations.  As a result, everyone can interact without painful experiences, bringing positive energy back into the caring relationship.

A person who has early dementia often experience that their memory is changing, that they can’t quickly figure out things they used to and people are beginning to treat them differently. This negatively affects the person’s self-esteem and they feel fearful and insecure.  As a result they may tend to hold on to who they were and uphold the façade that everything is fine.  They tend to become ‘allergic’ to any direct or indirect reference to their changing abilities and these situations often trigger strong and angry reactions.

Money is often the cause of disputes and challenges and carers can even be accused of stealing the person’s money. When we are on the receiving end of such accusations, whether as family or as a personal carer, it can be deeply upsetting.

From a carers perspective it can seem that there is something mentally wrong with the person and we may seek professional help. However, if we engage the Spark of Life Philosophy it is possible to find the real reason behind these accusations.

People with dementia can often resort to communicating in symbols and symbolic language. Money symbolises worth. So when a person with dementia accuses someone of stealing their money they are actually saying, ‘You are stealing my worth!’ This refers to their worth as a person or worth in life. With an open heart we need to look at how our actions or what we say may cause the person to feel they have lost their worth. Our kind-hearted attempts to help may result in us taking over and doing things for the person with dementia that they may be able to do themselves given a little extra time. Once we identify the real triggers and avoid the resulting reactions, the accusations will disappear.

The Spark of Life Philosophy of bringing heart-to-mind can have a profound, positive impact on both carers and people with dementia. The key message is that we as carers need to change our viewpoint to understand the person with dementia; not the other way around.