I only knew my grandmother for a very brief period of time during her life. I recall, as a small child, how much this very strangely dressed, white haired woman with dark skin made me feel uncomfortable and scared. I did not like her because I could not understand what she was trying to say nor could I get past her weird clothing……yet she was my grandmother.
She would say “Tókheškhe yaúŋ he, Jessi”, (How are you, Jessi) to which I would look at my mother for a translation. Mom would pat me on the head, replying, “Wašté’ (Fine). Their conversation would carry on for what seemed like hours, in a language I did not understand. I would sit on the couch, listening and staring at the colorful beaded vest my grandmother always wore. The most exciting part for me, when visiting grandma, was leaving.
My mother would bid my grandmother “Tókša akhé waŋčhíŋyaŋkiŋ kte ” ( Goodbye) and off we would go…… Thank God.
Today, in my profession, I see similar visits between family members and progressed dementia patients. The son/daughter or spouse sits beside their loved one, listening to what sounds like a word salad of misplaced words, sentences and disorganized thoughts. The visitor sits, listens and tries to follow the conversation…often looking over to the staff for an interpretation. It is certainly a frustrating experience for both parties….Every person wants to be understood, heard and responded to…. But how can any of us achieve that when we don’t understand?
My grandma would reach out for me as my mother and I rose to leave….hugging me tightly. “Techi”hila Jessi, techi”hila.” I could not understand any of it, but what I knew was….this old Lakota Indian woman loved me dearly.
I could feel the love in her hug, sense it by her smile and see it in her eyes….To her, it didn’t matter that I could not speak her language, it only mattered that I knew she loved me….
The same is true with dementia or any other disorder causing a person to “not be understood”. They can sense our impatience, frustrations and our love for them…..they know. We as caregivers and family members must remember to look past the spoken words that are jumbled, fumbled and muddled, and feel the love that person has for us….non-verbal spoken love…..
It has been over 40 years since my grandma passed away…I was just a little kid back then, not meaning to be a snobby, judgmental grandchild. I just didn’t understand my heritage, my culture or my grandma. I didn’t understand the clothing was a cultural statement….the language spoken was my heritage……just as family members and caregivers may not understand why their loved one has on 6 shirts, 2 jackets and mismatched shoes. But you know what? None of that matters….what DOES matter is feeling loved by us and recognizing that not all words are spoken.