What do llamas have to do with this story–besides the fact that they’re super cute? (My son snapped a photo of this beauty at the traveling zoo that recently passed through Saxonville in Framingham.) You’ll just have to read on to find out!
May is National Mental Health month. Two big issues our nation faces – both typically on opposite ends of the age spectrum–are dementia, or Alzheimer’s, and ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder.
For anyone dealing with a child or elderly parent whose emotional behavior is erratic – even scary at times–these disorders can leave people feeling helpless. A common way of treating them is through the use of psychoactive medication. While drugs may mask the condition for a time they don't make it go away.
It’s a shocking fact that Americans consume nearly 80% of the world‘s Ritalin (a drug used to treat ADD in kids). And psychotic drugs are regularly used in nursing homes across the country to deal with aggressive residents. Though according to a recent Boston Globe article, “most of these residents do not have conditions that nursing home regulators say warrant use of the drugs. And federal authorities have warned of sometimes lethal side effects when antipsychotics are taken by elderly dementia patients” (Finding alternatives to potent sedatives).
The Globe article features the example of a nursing home director who works at a home in Littleton, and has taken an entirely different approach to the issue. Try llamas in the living room and a significant downsizing on drug treatments. This new director has slowly weaned the residents off of the drugs and worked to understand the patients' pasts so she could “tailor care to each resident, to make it familiar and comforting." Staff members "learn their preferences, hobbies, and accomplishments, tapping bedrock emotions that endure long after memory fades.”
The Littleton nursing home also uses other animals to bring a calming emotional effect to the atmosphere. While this approach to patient care takes effort and often more staff, which means more money, the positive outcomes prove it's all worthwhile.
In Simplicity Parenting–Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, authors Kim John Payne, M. Ed. and Lisa M. Ross take issue with over-reliance on pharmaceuticals and the premise that we are simply the result of brain chemistry.
In their study of kids affected by ADD, they looked at neuroplasticity, which indicates the incredible malleability and flexibility of the human brain. "Neurologists studying meditation and prayer are discovering new things about the structure and function of the brain and how it can be changed” (p. 29).
With the ADD cases they treated, they didn't resort to drugs first, but rather introduced a calm, uncluttered environment in the children’s lives. They countered the view "that the brain’s ‘hormonal cocktail’ is entirely predetermined and fixed.” Instead, they said, “The impressive and clinically significant behavioral improvements we saw suggest that a child is affected by more than just the chemical levels in their brain…” (p. 29).
In other words, isn't it possible that thought, or consciousness, precedes and even determines brain activity? “By recognizing neuroplasticity as a real and powerful force, we can wrest ourselves back from genetic and chemical predeterminism, from the notion that we are nothing more than a fixed pattern of genes and neural chemistry” (p. 32).
Both scenarios–treating children with ADD and working with adults who suffer from dementia–strongly indicate that the brain doesn’t have to call all the shots. How vital it is to recognize the power of treating a person as so much more than the limitations of their brain.
I find this Biblical promise rings true: “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jer. 29: 11).
In my spiritual practice I’ve seen how applying these same simple guidelines has a healing and transformational effect.
- take time to find out who a person is
- value and establish a calm and fearless atmosphere
- tap into the enduring qualities of love and compassion that we all respond to
Sometimes simple is best.
You can see related photos from The Boston Globe here