How to Sit With Someone Who Has Dementia

Marguerite Manteau-Rao writes about the benefits of "mindfulness by proxy."

Amazing things can happen with folks who are living with dementia. They can start speaking intelligible words after months of muteness. They can start relating and smiling again. They can move their previously frozen limbs. They can sing entire songs. They can show flashes of insight. So many possible surprises. However, the conditions have to be right.

First and foremost, the person needs to be given the time, and the mental and emotional space to BE. That means no rushing, no outpacing, no talking over, no ignoring, no assuming. Instead, we are to practice being present for them. How does that work?

First I take a chair and I sit down. Down at the person’s level, mirroring her own sitting. And I take the time to relax into my body, and to let my mind settle. Becoming aware of the sensations in my body, and of breath. Dropping below the habitual level of discursive thinking and emotional reactivity. I create space within my own mind. Sitting with her, I practice what is commonly called mindfulness.

Something usually happens then. Mindfulness starts working its magic not just on me, but also the person I am sitting with.

I notice my friend’s body starts to relax, and I can feel her mind loosening as well. There is an overall sense of joint resting within a vast expanse. For her this is especially important, as the newly created space and stillness gives the tenuous connections in her brain a chance to take again. She can "re-ment." She was mute and now she tells me "thank you."

If electrodes were taped on my friend’s brain, I am pretty sure we would see dramatic changes in her brain’s activity and connectivity. Mindfulness by proxy… Maybe a new avenue for neuroscience research?


Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a licensed clinical social worker and registered art therapist with a mindfulness-based psychotherapy private practice in Palo Alto, CA. She shares her mindfulness practice in the Mind Deep blog.  

She is also the co-founder of the Presence Care Project and is a consultant for communities and individuals involved in dementia care. She currently serves as Advisor for the Wellness Experience at AgeSong assisted living communities in San Francisco. 


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