Alzheimer’s and the Art of Listening
This month, I’ve found myself reflecting on what elements comprise the art of listening within our family relationships, and especially in our male-female relationships as we age. While I am on leave from my typical role as a full-time couples and family therapist in Bethesda and Washington DC, I have been reflecting on some key aspects of listening fully as I’m spending time with my father who is ill with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that destroys different parts of the brain, depending on your brand of the disease. It can block speech, impair memory, impede physical abilities, slow emotional expression, and blur thought processes and so much more. It is a painful disease for those who have it and for those who are caregivers or loved ones. Yet, in my personal and professional experience, I have found it to gently nudge and to teach me a few things about how to be more present and attentive not only when I interact with family, but also in my daily life as a practicing therapist.
In couples therapy sessions, I believe that I must help couples feel more, attend better, look closely into each other’s wanting eyes, and hear each other fully. In daily life, here is how each of us can touch others whom we love through listening more fully. We can try:
- Paying attention more carefully
- Loving others as open-heartedly as we can stand
- Keeping our loved ones’ thoughts and values in mind as fully as we can
As I watch and relate to my father lately, I think about how this person (and his Alzheimer’s) is teaching me so much about the art of listening. The Chinese symbol of listening embodies several characters into one drawing to show what listening really is comprised of. On the top left, it has a symbol for ears; we first start by hearing. On the middle right, it shows a character for eyes; we listen by watching and looking into the eyes of those whom we love. Just under that, it includes a portion for undivided attention, or our fully present mind; we listen by fully dedicating our thoughts and committing our attention towards our loved one who needs us. On the bottom right, there is a picture for a heart symbol; we listen by feeling others’ feelings fully. And, at the top right, there is a symbol for “you,” which I intuit to mean that we listen with our whole body and our entire mind.
In my father’s situation, it makes all the difference, if I can listen with my loving touch, with an open heart, and with an uncluttered mind. You, too, can strengthen your relationships with this subtle, powerful practice.