Do you ever wonder what goes on inside an elder with memory loss? Have you ever considered what is going on in their interior life? Have you ever been confronted by behaviors that you knew had some meaning but you didn’t know what?
Having spent over 25 years working with elders and the last 10 years engaging those with memory loss, these questions are front and center in my thinking. I have lost count of the many times families have come to me to apologize for their spouse/mother/father’s behavior. S/he was never this way before, they insist. They were never rude, cursed or were difficult. Then there’s the other side. Daughters in particular express relief and amazement that for the first time they can be with their parent without feeling criticized or judged. What is going on here?
The eminent psychiatrist, C.G. Jung has something to offer those of us who confront these questions and statements. In a line often quoted by gerontologists, he said: “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species.” As I’ve pondered these words and tried to see their meaning in the context of my work with elders it seemed obvious to me that just because a person has dementia doesn’t mean their interior life stops. What if the journey of dementia is part of the journey of their soul? What if the kinds of behaviors and situations these elders find themselves in is precisely what is needed for them to free themselves of intractable suffering that has been buried deep within?
As I was contemplating in this way I was also caring for a beloved aunt – the one who, in my youth, provided me with the love and affection that my mother couldn’t. In her 90s, three years into stroke related dementia, she began talking about having “rotten parents.” She also began cursing. How could this be? I asked myself. Didn’t she always extol the virtues of her parents? Never before had she uttered one negative word about them. As for cursing – she had always been a total Puritan. Even words like “shit” would bring down a wealth of reprimands on my head. Yet here she was talking about rotten parents and cursing her way through her days. Thankfully my years of working with elders helped me not dismiss what was happening for her. But what was the context? What was the meaning? Was there one?
Together we struggled through this period with lots of listening and encouragement on my part along with developing close relationships with the staff in the facility where she lived. I needed them to know that there was some meaning to all of this even if we could not understand what that was. By the time my aunt died, she seemed to have released a good deal of her hurt, anger, and angst. She left me with a commission: find out what happened. What could I have done to better aid her journey?
Life answered my query. My spiritual director retired and donated to me her entire collection of sandplay figures. For those of you not familiar with sandplay, it is a therapeutic technique, developed by pediatrician Margaret Lowenfeld that has been used mostly with troubled children since the 1920s. It consists of a box of sand and hundreds of miniatures that represent life. The sandplayer chooses figures and builds scenes in the sand. It is a creative act and as such, it bypasses cognitive functions. The unconscious, that which is unknown to us, takes over. The result is that a deeper part of us is able to be known in a way that is playful, generative and powerful. What is created is a reflection of the call of the psyche for that person.
At the time of this gift, I was working in a skilled nursing facility. I decided to set up a sandplay area and see how elders living in the home responded. Whenever I had free time I would corral one or another resident and invite him or her to do a tray with me. I recruited a helper, and over the spring and summer we did about 50 trays - enough to make me realize that something incredibly healing was going on for many of them.
Wanting to more systematically explore this medium with elders in light of Jung’s counsel, I went back to graduate school in Jungian studies to do a research project on sandplay and elders with memory loss. This subject has become the focus of my work as I try to bring the results of what I discovered to the aging and sandplay communities. With some perseverance and grace, I am presently writing a book on what I’ve learned over these years using this medium. At the 6th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality, I will be sharing some of the sandplays created by elders and the depth of their process.
Caring for elders with memory loss is still in its infancy. Recognizing past trauma and/or buried emotional content and mining its spiritual potential is barely on the radar of care. My hope is that conferences such as this and the people who flock to them will begin to spread the word about sandplay and by so doing, change the nature not only of care for elders with memory loss, but of how we think about the journey of dementia. If you are on the fence about this conference, I encourage you to take the plunge. There is a remarkable array of presenters all focused on that one part of the psyche, our spirit, that is central to elderhood but often overlooked because it is not recognized or valued. I hope to come away with more connections of like-minded people in the field as well as tools I can put into practice in my work. I look forward to seeing you there.
Sandi Peters has a master’s degree in psychology and has been working in the field of gerontology since 1986. Her area of specialty is lifespan development and the possibilities for deepening in older age. As a student of Carl Jung, she has particular interest in the role of symbolic expression in older age, especially for those with memory loss. Sandi uses sandplay, a combination of miniature figures and a box of sand, with elders to access and creatively express inner states. She also works as a consultant and trainer in long term care facilities. Presently, she is working on a book that combines her interest in aging, late life spirituality, memory loss, sandplay and self.