My Shadow, My Friend

(April 2018)

According to Buddha, “Attachment is the source of all suffering.”

If you accept this statement, you might assume that all who suffer from dementia and exhibit loyalty must be miserable. However, consider a devoted pet that follows your every move because it feels unconditional love and the need for assurance from its owner.

This is an optimistic perspective.  What matters is how the receiver perceives the constant attention.

I guess you can say Buddha never met Jeanie, a woman in her early 70s who lived in a world dominated by her advanced Alzheimer’s. While there is a sense of truth to the link between suffering and devotion, had Buddha known Jeanie and the people who cared for her, he might have altered his point of view on connection and what made Jeannie tick.

Jeanie moved into the facility; our relationship had become cemented by the time I first met her, our relationship had become cemented.  From then on, there wasn’t a moment outside of her care and meals that Jeanie wasn’t within two feet of me.  For instance, standing outside my office door in plain sight from the nurses’ station when I arrived at work, she would make a beeline down that hallway prancing towards me. And there she remained by my side the whole day as my shadow unless I had to leave the floor or until her husband showed up.

In the beginning, her constant presence was a bit annoying, but over a short period, it became a blessing, odd as it may sound. Jeanie was non-verbal but still capable of expressing her emotions.

Jeanie smiled and agreed to any task you might ask her, like holding things as I organized my desk. She sat in on every activity, providing her full attention, and exhibited no signs of disapproval or anger. She was steadfast in sitting across from me when I facilitated my first poetry group. I can still see her expression as if she assured me I was doing a good job. Jeanie was just content to be by my side.

I didn’t realize how important she had become until she wasn’t there. 

I have always believed people with dementia become a more pronounced version of what they always were. I now saw Jeanie as the person before Alzheimer’s took over, always tranquil, non-judgmental, and supportive. I saw her as a confidant who always laughed at my jokes.

What I came to feel was she was my friend and not just my shadow.

I understand what Buddha meant when he stated, “Attachment is the source of all suffering.” And I used his quote to make a point. As this relates to Jeanie, most people who knew her in the Nursing Home thought of her as needy, clingy, and a  victim of a horrible disease. That was all true; however, I saw something different in Jeanie beyond Alzheimer’s.

As I stated earlier, Jeanie left just for a short time, and when she returned, she resumed her routine and role as my shadow. Now it was my turn to go as I resigned from my position. I thought leaving Jeanie would be hard for both her and me at first, but working in this field, you must respect the caregiver environment and know that others would look out for Jeanie once I left.

It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Jeanie, and I often think of her.  This occurs when a client follows me into the office, or I perform a poetry program for the first time. I remember and can still see her smiling across the table, and then I know it’s all good.

Like, in the story, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the reader learns it's important to look beneath the surface where you can find the truth and meaning of something. In the story, it’s the Fox, the real teacher, who shows the Prince how to see with his heart instead of his eyes only. And in my story, it is Jeanie who is the teacher; Jeanie is the fox.

Jeanie didn’t use words, but through her actions and behavior, she instilled unconditional friendship where I learned to look beyond the obvious, the lurking shadow. 

Where ever you may be, Jeanie, you will always be my shadow, friend, and most important— the fox.

the Little Prince


My Friendly Silhouette

Shadows are like friends, as they never leave your side

They’re right there as you walk the path

As if safety is their rule

They mimic every move, so they must like what you do

They’re never far away, even when you sleep

Then back for morning sunshine; they’re back for us to keep

   -Grandma J & Zachary Preston

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