Sunday, February 26, 2012


For anyone seeking to know more about their own humanity, and about what it means to be a human being, today's front page article in the New York Times, "Life, with Dementia" is a moving and instructive read. In some parts of our nation prison inmates, often with violent criminal records and serving life sentences themselves, are being trained to treat those of their fellows who are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease--a growing population, given their advancing age, their history of emotional disturbance and frequently neglected physical health, along with the nature of prison life and the absence of loving, supportive communities to care for them.

Care-needers and care-givers, both, are living in an environment where humanity is reduced to its barest of circumstances. As lifers in the prison system, they have a common history of the worst imaginable acts of violence, deeds so inhuman as to warrant their exclusion from the society of humankind. And yet they are brought together, care-needers and care-givers, in a circumstance that requires them to rediscover the humanity they sacrificed. The care-givers, particularly, are offered the opportunity to learn what it means to be a human being. "Thank you," one writes with eloquent simplicity in an evaluation of the program, "for allowing me to feel human."

The victims of dementia need not only care for their most basic needs, from dressing and eating to personal cleanliness and hygiene, but also protection from predatory fellow inmates--and often from themselves. The ignorance, rage and dissonance that led them to commit their dreadful crimes in the first place have now annexed their mind-space in its entirety, leaving them unprotected from the ravages of delusion. One pitiable old man awaits his mother at the prison gate each morning; another sees his brother in the toilet bowl. They are incontinent, subject to sudden fury, disoriented, out of touch with the reality of their lives.

The care-givers, their counterparts, are given the opportunity to explore the compassionate nature with which they had lost touch. They learn what it takes to clean up the shit and piss of another human being; they learn the courage needed to protect their charges from the savage treatment they might otherwise expect from other inmates; they learn about their own capacity for love in the most unforgiving of circumstances; they learn to live with the scorn and envy of fellow-prisoners who despise them, sometimes, as snitches and collaborators. In taking care of those less fortunate, they learn to take care of themselves.

It seems to me that these men, in facing irrefutable truths about the bleak, reductive realities of their lives, have as much to teach us as the Buddha about aging, illness and death. It is as humbling to read about the suffering of those afflicted as about the courage and service of those who work to take care of their needs. The reciprocity of their situation is at once remarkable and inspiring.

1 comment:

kara rane said...

wow, this is amazing...a system for care and giving that could be in other non-prison situations, too.