Is there beauty or joy in dementia?

Whenever I post something on Facebook that references the existence of beauty or joy or any kind of gift in dementia or dementia care, there’s always pushback. “There’s no beauty in dementia! Dementia is ugly and brutal and there’s no good anywhere in it. Dementia tortures the person affected and the caregiver.” One person recently even stated that a family member who died with dementia was “crucified.”

There’s no denying that dementia is ugly. No one has ever said, wouldn’t it be great to experience the beauty that is dementia…. no one.

But I would argue that there is beauty and joy and laughter and other forms of goodness that exist despite dementia.

Early on, before dementia has taken a significant toll, I would suggest that to a large degree, we the care-partners and caregivers along with the person who’s living with dementia have a dramatic ability to affect the degree of goodness we experience. A recent and controversial article in The New York Times suggested “changing the tragedy narrative” of dementia by focusing on the good that exists for as long as possible. There’s an opportunity for gentle humor and much of the goodness of ordinary life because although the person living with dementia experiences some deficits, their impact on overall quality of life is not devastating. In fact, this is an important aspect of advocacy since the common understanding of an uninformed public is that a person who is living with dementia goes from healthy to entirely impaired almost immediately — something those of us who interact with people living with dementia know.

But what about later in dementia’s progression? Unpleasant symptoms of brain death caused by dementia abound. Inability to communicate as clearly (or perhaps not at all), incontinence, hallucinations, paranoia, personality changes, and more are frequent. Where’s the beauty in that list? The joy?

it would be naive, even offensive, to downplay the difficult, uncomfortable, frightening aspects of dementia. And it’s true that as dementia progresses, the good days get to be shorter and fewer. Every person experiences dementia somewhat differently, and some people undoubtedly experience the worst dementia has to offer on an ongoing basis. For most people, though, moments of beauty and joy and connection are possible. Here’s what those moments look like…

  • ​A smile or laugh
  • A look or words of recognition when the person living with dementia has forgotten a name or relationship
  • A cogent comment out of the blue
  • Expressions of love, verbal or non-verbal
  • Interest in an activity when none previously existed

​As dementia progresses, the key is to watch for and/or to create moments of joy and beauty. In fact, one book The Purple Sherpa recommends is titled Creating Moments of Joy for the Person With Alzherimer’s Or Dementia. As dementia progresses, these moment may become less and less common and they may last for shorter periods of time… But if we watch carefully, we will most likely see these moments, at least occasionally. And if we do not believe that such moments are possible, we surely won’t see them.

What moments of joy or beauty have you seen?