Middle School Winner Alex Gilliland Essay on "Blessings Revealed"

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Alex Gilliland, a student in Dara Lukonen's class at Aka'ula School in Molokai, Hawaii, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, "Blessings Revealed" by Puanani Burgess. She is our middle school winner for the Spring 2011 writing competition.

Writing prompt: What is your gift? How do you share it?

Who’s Inside Dementia?

By Alex Gilliland

They didn’t start out as Grandma and Grandpa; it took over ten years for me to consciously consider them family. Looking back I think part of me knew that’s what they were all along. They started out as neighbors—I called them Auntie and Uncle. We moved to Molokai ten years ago when I was four, and I have lots of memories of spending time at their home when I was growing up. At that time they were in their seventies, but I never saw them as old because they were so full of life.

After three years of living next to Auntie and Uncle, our family moved to the other side of Molokai.  The amount of time I spent with them slowly decreased as did their mental health. Two years ago they were diagnosed with dementia. Unfortunately, they didn’t have family on island to help them cope with their condition, but they were there for my family in the past, and it was time for us to be there for them.

Our visits to Auntie and Uncle became more frequent. We helped them do the things they couldn’t do independently anymore. We brought them groceries, did yard work, and made sure they took their medicine. A few months ago their daughter came to Molokai to look after them. While it took a lot of stress off our family, we couldn’t leave their lives completely. After all, they were still my grandma and grandpa.

My gift is that I am able to look past my grandparents' dementia and see who they are inside.  Others only see what’s been lost when they repeat over and over again stories of events that happened long ago. They no longer see my grandparents; they see only the dementia that traps them inside themselves. I still love to spend time with them and I think they know that I love them with all my heart. Not a lot of people in their life believe that they're still here. I hear people talk about how much they’ve changed and how they should get more help. Yes, they've changed, but I wish everyone could see past their fading exteriors.

One of the saddest things about taking care of people suffering from dementia is that there is no cure. You have to accept that their condition will just get worse, and that the best thing you can do is stay by their side. Even though some people see taking care of grandparents as an obligation, I see it as a privilege, and I’ve learned how special that is.

I never realized that my gift was important until I read the article about finding your gifts in the “Blessings Revealed” article in YES! Magazine. I spent a lot of time thinking about life, what I like to do, and what’s important to me. It took a visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s to figure out that our time together is truly a gift. I share companionship and love with them on a regular basis. Something they wouldn’t have if I wasn’t there. My gift is the ability to see beyond the dementia and recognize who my grandparents are, even when others no longer can.

They say that life is a circle; I went from being the one who was cared for to being the caretaker. I will be there for my grandparents, just like they were there for me. That’s what family does.

Alex Gilliland was born in Harare, Zimbabwe on a warm mid-October day; she later moved to Illinois where she lived until the age of four. Alex currently resides on the friendly island of Molokai, Hawaii and will be a freshman at Molokai High School in the fall. Alex enjoys paddling canoe, and loves to create many types of art. She hopes that this essay is just one of many pieces she’ll get published in the future.


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Puanani Burgess’s article is part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Pua is a community building facilitator, trainer and consultant in Hawai'i, the U.S. and the Pacific. She is also a poet and cultural translator who is noted for her experience in community, family and values-based economic development, mediation and storytelling processes. Pua is also a board member of the Positive Futures Network, publishers of YES! Magazine.

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