There is a question, a seemingly harmless question, that haunts us in childhood, at the start of young adulthood, and at the end of life, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As an adult, I still get asked this question, and I have found that with older adults it is a question of, “What were you?” This question has never sat well with me, for reasons I never chose to explore. It is a damaging question and one that should be transformed into, “Who do you want to become?” Our careers, our educational endeavors, only one small part of what makes up our lives. It is fleeting, while our values, beliefs, character, and interests are carried with us throughout our life.
It is more the topic of “what” that is a problem than the question itself. As kids we have answers, often times great and big answers to this question. We want to be doctors, artists, lawyers, firemen, construction workers, businessmen. The list is as endless as the dreams we hold. When we are young adults that question of “what” starts to feel like pressure, we have to select a major in college or decide if we are to go to college, into the army, attend a vocational school, or directly into the workforce. As we graduate and move forward into a career we have to balance the dreams we have and the not yet/maybe not of our reality. We may know where we are going, or we may not. We may know what we are doing, or we may not. We may have the golden ticket to our dream job or a door slammed into our face. The question through all of this remains, “What do you do?” This word, this question comes back when we are older, retired, when asked, “What were you?” and “What did you do for a living?”
What. What. What. What. Can we erase that word and replace it with “Who” and ask, “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to become?” For as long as we have breathe, we are becoming. The question of “who” looks at the entirety of a person, it shifts that value of a person from how they make/made their money, to how they live their life. If we are to truly connect with individuals, dementia or not, we need to get into the deep waters of a person’s life. To get behind the “what” of a life, and ask the “who” and “why” of life. I heard in a recent training, “Every time a person has a diagnosis of one form of dementia or another, it is like a library is burning down.” By asking the question of “what” we never are able to explore the books in that library. We are never able to learn from, be inspired by, or be fully connected with them if we fixate not the “what.”
How do we transform the “what” into a “who” when language and memory are slipping? Easy, through the arts and creativity. By playing music, engaging in storytelling, through art explorations and making, by asking, as Anne Basting often encourages, beautiful questions, we push aside the obstacles and reach each person on a deeper level. And in doing so, not only do we become more relational, but we also bring joy and purpose into our relationships and each other’s lives. We should engage in art, engage in creativity, and engage in asking the questions of, “who are you?” and “who do you want to become?” Not just in our encounters with dementia, but also with their caregivers, family members, and with everyone we encounter. Our children should be asked, “Who do you want to become?” Our college students the same question. Our recent graduates, our unemployed, our staff, our recent retirees, and our grandparents. Who do you want to become today? Tomorrow? For the rest of your moments here on earth? Be it through the creation and absorbing of the arts and creativity, or through asking the question.