3 things my mom’s dementia has taught me about business (and life)

Unbelievably it has been over eight years since I got the phone call that would change the course of my adult life.  I was driving to a Board meeting for the Imaginative Education Research Group which was being held at the Vancouver Yacht Club in my home city, Vancouver British Columbia.  While I wasn’t a Board member, I was their support person so it was amazing to be at the table and be privileged to hear the conversations.  Needless to say, I was anticipating an intellectually stimulating meal in beautiful surroundings.  My darling son was at his friend’s house and I was free for the evening for a change.  Woo-hoo!

Then my mobile phone rang.  I didn’t recognize the number, but I recognized the prefix as being from the city that my mom lived in.  The woman pronounced that she was calling from the Public Health office in my mom’s city. I think I may have stopped breathing for a moment.  I pulled over and tried to calm my shaking as I found out that my mom was in the hospital, having collapsed in a crosswalk of a busy intersection.  What followed was a whirlwind of rearranged schedules, medical appointments, multiple calls and emails with my brother and sister who both lived more than four hours away, and eventually a diagnosis of vascular dementia.

In 2004 my stepfather passed away from cancer.  His adult children and my mom had cared for him in the apartment that mom and him shared right up until he passed on during that spring.  Mom was heartbroken – literally. We think she had a significant TIA (transient ischemic attack) when he died there in their living room, or sometime thereabouts.  That TIA affected her brain and it began its deterioration into dementia. (To learn more about vascular dementia, please go to the Alzheimer Society of Canada website, or seek out your local resource.)

Fast forward to today…. my mom lives with my son and me in a house that is perfect for her needs these days. While she is confused at times, she has her independence, is physically healthy and stable and I am still close by for the daily things she now needs help with.

Which brings me to my topic today – what has my mom’s dementia taught me about business and life? There has definitely been more than 3 things, but I think and feel that these are the top lessons for me just now.

1. Mindful communications is beyond important – it is the magic that I searched for throughout my childhood.

My mom doesn’t always hear our words in a way that makes sense to her, but she has the most incredible antennae for picking up the emotions of the person speaking.  If there was any doubt in your mind about how much people pick up on your emotional undertones, spend some time with someone with dementia.  I can be saying the most basic of things and if I am not fully present in my conversation with her, she will zero in on my tone of voice and react to her perception of that, rather than the words I am using.  This amazing ability to hear the unspoken has reinforced for me how critical it is that I am present and mindful about my words and emotions, regardless of who I am speaking with.

It is well known now that we are constantly picking up on a myriad of cues from those around us.  The magic comes when we take the time to stop our internal dialogues, block out the surrounding distractions, and focus purely and simply on the person(s) in front of us.  It is hard, but with practice, it becomes easier and opens us up to amazing positive possibilities.  This lifelong-habit-in-progress has allowed me to learn things from my quiet son that his teen brain probably never thought to share with me.  I have been able to switch from being emotionally and professionally stuck because of a bad relationship with a former manager, to having compassion for her perspective and a more clear understanding of what drives her. And so, I continue to grow personally and professionally in direct proportion to my practice of mindful communications. Being around my mom and working to find ways to communicate with her has been excellent daily practice.

2. Daily habits are a necessary condition. Laziness need not apply.

My mom does the dishes every day.  Every day she makes her bed.  Each day she does some other chore around the house – she vacuums, she does laundry, she wipes counters.   I must admit that this has been a challenge for me at times. For example, I go a bit crazy when she picks up after my kid – because I don’t want her to feel obligated and and I want him to learn his own good habits! Ultimately though, these things keep my mom going and engaged with something other than the TV, and at 80 years old, she is still physically healthy and going strong.

My dad was like this too. He was hard working and daily demonstrated the importance of putting “first things first”.  I learned from them that there are a bunch of crappy or boring but necessary things that must be done to keep life going in the direction that one wants.  Likewise in business: a percentage of what needs to be done will never be glamorous but those things are critical foundations of any other success. For example,  you must establish daily habits that show your appreciation to your staff – pay them on time and fairly, make sure they get appropriate breaks, ensure they have the tools they need to do their job, etc.  We cannot shirk the daily habits that make life and business enjoyable and fulfilling.  The challenge of course is deciding what are the necessary habits that underpin all the rest and then using self-discipline to keep it all going. I am convinced of the fact that self-discipline is one of THE most important habits for anything worth doing in life.  I can set goals until I am blue in the face and buried in creative plans, but if I don’t execute with self-discipline, well, I might as well accept mediocrity or worse in my life. (Need a resource? I recently re-discovered Brian Tracey’s “No-Excuses!: The power of self-discipline” book which I found to be a great reminder of what is necessary.)

3. We all need a purpose in life.

One of the things about living with my mom that I find equally fascinating and challenging, is supporting her as she works through ‘why keep going’.  We have learned over the years that her ‘helping out’ around the house gives her a purpose and makes her feel needed.  She often tells me that she doesn’t want to be a burden and that by doing the dishes and other housework, she feels like she is contributing.  Watching her put the dishes away and then realizing that she hasn’t eaten or taken her meds, puts this drive for purpose into perspective.  Time after time I am reminding her to take care of her own needs first.  But still, she is driven to serve others around her. Wow.

I’ve done a lot of reading over the last 25 years about social-enterprises, spirituality, self-improvement, and leadership.  Often this idea of making choices that are about serving others is a featured ideal.  As I see my mom play out her later years and as I try to find ways to help her continue to engage with the world outside our house, I am just so clear that each of us needs to really make time to figure out what drives us and gives meaning to our lives.  Personally, I have struggled for a very long time about what my purpose in life is.  When I was younger, I thought of it as “PURPOSE”, like something huge I was supposed to do.  Now, I see my purpose as raising my son to be a fantastic human being, holding space and love for my mom as she did for me when I was little, and finding a way to serve others even as I earn enough money to support my son’s and my needs.  I love that making money and helping others is no longer considered mutually exclusive and this gives me hope for the future! I am now working on re-visioning my purpose and how I want to serve others over the coming years.  I am excited by the prospects of being less focused on survival and more focused on using all that I have been blessed with to help others.

I hate that my mom has dementia and I still miss my independent, brilliant, cut-lose-when-you-least-expect-it, funny mom.  She is still in there and comes out for a visit every once in a while and I am so very glad when it happens.   For myself,  I’m terrified that I will end up with dementia myself and I am working on identifying what I need to do now to minimize that risk so my son doesn’t go through what I am going through now.  These lessons that my mom has taught me will stand me in good stead – mindful communications, self-disciplined daily habits, and finding a purpose in life.

I do not financially benefit from any of the external links in this post. They are provided as a courtesy only.

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