Tag Archives: smile

Smile For a While and Let’s Be Jolly…

My sister Peggy, age 5, smiling her beautiful smile
My sister Peggy, age 5, smiling her beautiful smile

The Cheshire Cat may have been onto something. Accounts differ as to what inspired Lewis Carroll to use the smiling cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but the majority agrees that he certainly made it famous. A multitude of studies has recently shown that smiling actually changes your brain (in a good way).

That is really good news for those who suffer from some form of dementia, who, along with Alice might find themselves in a strange and confusing world where nothing appears real and everyone seems to be a bit mad. They may also feel frightened and lonely and wish they could simply tap their ruby slippers together three times and go home again….wait; I’ve mixed up my stories. Suffice it to say, dementia is not a pleasant world to live in.

Those caring for loved ones who suffer from dementia may also find themselves living in a strange and lonely world. People they once had lively and meaningful conversations with can no longer chat and may not even recognize them. My Mama, who was smart, witty and a wonderful conversationalist, lost the ability to recognize me in the early stages of her battle with dementia.

This is the time of year when dark feelings of loneliness and depression can magnify – how ironic since the holidays are usually portrayed by scenes of happy family and friends getting together. Of course, the contrast between what is depicted and reality may be a contributing influence in the sadness factor. That, combined with what is referred to as Winter Blues (when days are short), can cause many caregivers to experience feelings of hopelessness.

Back to the smiles.

<em><strong>My sister Peggy and me sharing a laugh. She was always making me smile.</strong></em>
My sister Peggy and me sharing a laugh. She was always making me smile.

Smiles are also contagious; if you smile at someone, they smile, and then you both get a little happier–which can be especially good news for caregivers. Try smiling at your loved one several times throughout your day and watch how they respond.  Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden concluded that frowning when looking at someone smiling is possible, but would be very difficult.

What if you don’t feel like smiling?

Senia, age 4

But wait, there’s more! According to HealthHub.com, smiles– even fake smiles do a lot more than simply let the world know you’re happy. It turns out that there is also a whole host of health benefits to smiling. In an article titled, “15 of the best and free health benefits of smiling” including heart health, pain and stress reduction as well as an increase in productivity and longevity.

Everyone feels depressed now and then, and this is not meant to be a flippant post on the subject. Issues such as sadness and depression are not to be taken lightly. If you or someone you know is experiencing sadness that won’t go away, MentalHelp.net has some good advice on When To Seek Professional Help And Where To Find Help For Major Depression.

The takeaway here is that smiles might just be the best Christmas gift you can give out all season long…and best of all, they’re free!

The Messenger

Muriel Aasve Blankenship (a Messenger)
Muriel Aasve Blankenship (a Messenger)

My Mama was a messenger despite the fact that over the past decade or so, my Mama’s communication skills progressively deteriorated throughout the entire journey of the disease called dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s).  The first indicators that something was wrong began to manifest as seemingly normal conversations included statements that were repeated over and over (We referred to those incidents as her loop).

As time went on, her conversation skills melted slowly away as her ability to string sentences together decreased.  At first it was a back and forth thing – there were good days and bad. The good days gave us hope, while the bad days confirmed we were still on the same downhill path.

For a period of time, Mama retained what I called ‘Muscle Memory responses’. For example, if you asked her how she was doing, she would respond, “Fine.” Or, “Would you like something to drink?” her answer might be “No”, but then she would proceed to pick up the glass and drink it right down.

Mama’s ability to sing remained long after her ability to speak went silent. We knew a lot of songs and so the majority of our visits were spent singing. Eventually, her ability to sing left as well, so I sang all the songs for both of us.

In spite of the fact that her voice was silenced, Mama still had the ability to communicate with her eyes. Quite often when I was singing, reading or praying, her eyes would fill and tears would roll down her cheeks. I found a few Psalms, such as Psalm 23 and 71 that seemed to fit her so I read them to her over and over. I knew they would minister to her spirit so it felt as if I could still ‘do’ something for her.

Over the course of this extraordinarily long journey, various folks would comment that it seemed such a shame about her condition. I had more than one conversation with the Lord regarding it as well. Early on, our family was determined that we would do everything possible to help Mama finish well, but there were times that I wondered just what could be the purpose of this lingering a little longer.

Then one day while reading Psalm 71 to her, I noticed something. Verse 18 says, “And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.

How could Mama be a messenger?

I wondered how Mama, who couldn’t even speak, be able to declare anything about God to anyone? I gave it some thought. I pondered it. I wondered.  Revelation came to me over time. I learned that the word ‘declare’ could also mean ‘messenger’.

Mama was a messenger. Her life was a message that didn’t need words. She silently communicated that God did not forsake her.  In spite of the long, downward journey into the valley of the “Shadow of Death” that lasted over a decade, Mama’s sweet quietness steadily declared God’s strength to everyone around her.

This season also gave her family something else. Time. The extra time we were given allowed us the opportunity to show her honor. Honor due a parent and honor to a fellow human being. We had time not only to care for her, but her condition opened doors that we never would have otherwise walked through.  We were able to get to know both residents and caregivers alike, and these visits were full of chats, sharing the love of Jesus, joys, and concerns as well as praying and singing. Perhaps even providing hope to someone else on a journey that God will give them strength as well.

The day came and Jesus sent the angels; her work here was done. Mama finished well.

Whimsical joy

While engaging in a lovely chat with a friend of mine, I learned that she had recently embarked on a journey of caregiving. I wanted to give her a word of encouragement or comfort. She didn’t ask for advice, although she had said that she read my book,  “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey” and had gleaned some information which she felt might be helpful and ideas that she would try to keep in mind.

My heart broke with the knowledge of what would likely be a long journey ahead of her. It is no easy task. Many of our loved ones require constant supervision and need help with everyday activities. I hoped that she would have the strength to endure in the difficult times. She mentioned that this was not something she had taken on alone – which is such a blessing as it divides the load and shares both the joy and sorrow. Since she is a believer, my friend will also be drawing on the strength and comfort that comes from the Lord.

Joy is what will be needed for this endeavor. I encouraged my friend to find as much joy as possible by finding social networks and opportunities for her loved one to laugh and smile.

Look for ways to increase the music artistic expression in their world. Sometimes it will be a challenge to go out in public due to mobility limitations or possible inappropriate behaviors.

My sister, Peggy Whitten has a great saying that I love to quote when it comes to caring for a loved one: “They can’t enter your reality, you have to enter theirs.”

Some days their reality may seem like you’ve stumbled upon a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. That’s okay. Try to discover what activities you’re loved one might enjoy doing, (although this may change over time).  I would encourage you to venture out when you can. Help your loved one go to their place of worship, attend concerts, browse art galleries, feed ducks at the park, or visit a zoo.

Do whatever your loved one enjoyed prior to dementia and even add a few activities whenever possible.  When it comes to food, help your loved one share a meal with others whenever possible, whether it’s at a restaurant, with a church group, or a local senior center. Dining with others may also help promote better nutrition which is crucial.

Is there something that will give your loved one a sense of purpose? finishing_well_in_life_towelsMy Mama enjoyed folding towels. I often would bring them to her still warm from the dryer – she would hug the pile of towels and smile large. Eventually, she would begin folding and stacking them next to her. She enjoyed it so much that I must admit there were a few times I took clean, folded towels out of the linen closet to toss them into the dryer in order to give her something to fold. She also loved sorting colored beads and picking nits off of sweaters.

Anything, no matter how silly it seems, if it helps your loved one feel as if they can still do something to contribute is a worthwhile activity. Remember, the journey can be long, use your imagination to lighten the load and find all the whimsical joy you can.

Finally finished

Have you ever noticed that the longer something takes to complete, the less likely it gets accomplished? I am a project person. Perhaps I get bored easily, but it seems to me that I always have something I’m working on. I can usually finish my short-term projects before I run out of steam or interest, but those that take longer….well, all kinds of things can crop up to interfere with my best intentions.

There are a host of reasons for not completing a task. Plans get canceled, seasons change and people pass away. I’ve begun some things (usually a craft project) only to  discover that I don’t have quite enough talent or ability.

So it came as a nice surprise, that I happen to come across a notebook– my ‘Grateful Journal’ that I had begun keeping back in 2012. It was in response to a book I had just finished reading titled: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are” By Ann Voskampfinishing_well-in-life-1000

According to her website, Ann Voskamp’s story is not happily ever after. As a child, her sister was crushed under a truck in front of her and her mother. Consequently, her mother checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and her father couldn’t find God. As an adult, she stood beside her brother-in-law as he buried his first two sons. Voskamp is a wife and mother who does not grin through the pain but battles to believe that in God is joy, and that there are as many gifts amid the grittiness of life as in the moments of celebration.

It’s a compelling narrative that challenged me to develop a more grateful heart in my everyday life. I began keeping a journal to create a list of 1000 things on my own journey towards a more grateful heart. Somewhere along the way life got busy, the journal got misplaced, and I didn’t even notice.

So as mentioned, I came across my journal. I sat down and began a trip back through time by way of short numbered entries:

  1. A warm shower
  2. Putting Aria’s letter in the mailbox
  3. Playing chess with Bambi

….there were also entries that had a star scribbled on the line, those were the ones where I chose to be grateful:

  1. Brian’s funeral *
  2. Didn’t get to Skype with Lillie & Zuri*
  3. Found lots of tomato worms*

As I read through the entries and scribbles, my heart began to melt. I remembered the various moments of joy, gratefulness and sorrow. Reading on, I realized that through it all, a picture was emerging from these pages – a picture of God’s faithfulness. It struck me that I needed to pick it back up and finish – all the way to 1000 entries.

Many, many months later, I’m happy to report that I have finally arrived at number 1000! Interesting thing though – now that I’m there, I can’t stop. I have discovered that life will move on with or without our noting, but the simple act of recording moments of gratefulness does something to our hearts as we move on with life.

Give it a try. Either read the book first to get a better idea, or grab a notebook and begin your own journey of gratefulness.

Smiling Man

Hey Smiling Man, you waved to me! Yea! I’ve been waiting for some time.

That first time I saw you in the hall, you didn’t notice me – I guess you must have had something on your mind that day. After that, I looked for you every time I came in. Sometimes I would see you, but it took a long time before I could catch your eye.

I remember that first time you glanced my way. You looked a bit unsure, but returned my smile with a quick nod. Since that day, I have been getting better at catching your eye – now you look my way almost every time.  A couple of times, you’ve even spotted me first, and I noticed that your smile was becoming more spontaneous and enthusiastic – no longer waiting for me to smile first.

Today, however, was the best. When you spotted me, your whole face lit up and then finally, finally, finally – you waved!

Most of the residents at the care home where I visit my Mama won’t look at me, but there you are – smiling and now waving. Sometimes, I get sad after a visit with Mama, but your smile helps cheer me back up.

I wonder if you ever get any visitors or have any family in the area. In fact, I don’t know anything about you, and your condition, or even your name, but to me you will always be Mr. Smiling Man – thank you.

Is someone waiting for your smile today?


Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and finishingwell-3Dcovertips about doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy in your own, unique journey.

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