Hopefulness in Dementia Care (Part One) The Person is "Still" There

Stillness, and its inherent peacefulness, is accessible anytime and anywhere. I agree with those who say it is our natural state, covered over by the “monkey mind” and distractions. A very powerful example of this is a particular Tai Chi class that I teach at York Care Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the city where I work. I have been teaching classes in various locations for over twenty years, and in nursing homes and retirement residences for ten years. Some years ago, I was invited by the activity director of the centre to try a class in the Alzheimer unit. I agreed, without any expectations. I arrived for the class, and put a CD on with soft music.

The staff person asked the residents if they would like to attend and assisted them to gather in the lounge area. Six residents sat down and watched me as I began the class, which, by the way, is a seated program, which I designed for special groups. One resident was able to follow many of the movements; two had their eyes closed and were clearly listening to the music; another was sleeping; and two were staring at me with curiosity. But there was something else happening at the same time— there was a palpable stillness in the room, a wonderful peacefulness. In subsequent classes, I sometimes sense this peace- fulness—and I stop talking and just hang out with the participants.

I discussed the results of the class with the staff person. She said what happens here is huge. These are folks who are constantly in motion, who do not usually sit still for more than a few minutes, who often have fear and confusion in their eyes. However, during this class they are quiet and their eyes are calm—the staff person agreed that they clearly felt the stillness. To me this means that, unlike the stereotype that dementing persons are totally lost, there is also a still-ness present—they are still there.

I continue to learn many lessons from this group: First, we should not make quick assumptions about what is going on within a person with dementia. Just because a person’s thinking mind is confused does not mean that they cannot experience stillness. One of my Dutch colleagues conducts a similar class in The Netherlands. She says that when they are doing Tai Chi, “the disease is not there and we go straight to the stillness.” Second, these folks are able to contribute to my experience of stillness when I am sharing the class with them. And third, as I mentioned at the outset, stillness is possible anywhere and anytime. If they can find it, so can you.

(This Blog Post is adapted from my book Pathways to Stillness pathwaystostillness.org)


GARY Irwin-Kenyon is founding Chair and Professor, Gerontology Department, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He is a Fellow of the Andrew Norman Institute for Advanced Studies in Gerontology and Geriatrics, University of Southern California. Dr. Irwin-Kenyon is listed in Who’s Who in Canada and the United States. Besides Pathways to Stillness (pathwaystostillness.org), he has authored, co-authored or co-edited six books, including Narrative Gerontology, Storying Later Life, Restorying Your Life, and Ordinary Wisdom. Dr. Irwin-Kenyon is a teacher and practitioner of Tai Chi with more than thirty years experience. He designed a programme, Tai Chi as Narrative Care, which he has been teaching for the past ten years to special groups, including residents in long-term care. He conducts workshops and seminars in Canada, The United States, Europe, and Asia. Dr. Irwin-Kenyon is also an apprentice barista. He resides in St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick, Canada with his wife Liz, where they operate Seahaven, an organic B&B.

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