As Others See Us

Featured image: Hand Mirror, Ancient Egyptian, Dynasty 18-20 (1550-1070 BCE).
The Art Institute of Chicago

People turn to mirrors in order to see themselves as others see them, presuming that a mirror reflects a true image of the surface self. They believe that the mirror doesn’t deceive. In “Snow White,” the vain queen asks her magic mirror, “Who is the fairest of them all?” For years, the mirror replies that it is she. Over those years, Snow White, the queen’s stepdaughter, blooms into a beauty. There comes a day when the mirror declares Snow White to be the fairest, much to the aging queen’s ire.

            We cannot deny the mirror’s message. As Sylvia Plath tells us in her poem “Mirror,” “I am silver and exact.  / I have no preconceptions. . . . / I am not cruel, only truthful.”

Persons with dementia will mirror the emotions of those around them. They’ll mimic their gestures and facial expressions. They also catch others’ moods. They may pick up on a caregiver’s fear, anxiety, or anger, as well as on positive emotions, such as happiness or serenity.

            In a memoir about his mother who had dementia, the Flemish novelist Erwin Mortier notes: “She has become a mirror. . . . If the worries and grief are written on our faces, she too is overcome by sadness.” Mortier also observed that if he acted more cheerful than he felt, she’d pick up “the fact that I am behaving differently than my mood dictates.”

            I believe that Dick did this, too. More than once, he’d asserted that I wasn’t me: “There are two Annies. You’re not the one. You’re not Anne Marie Erickson. Go away!” I suspect that he saw through my guise when I masked my anger or wore a cheery smile even though I felt sad.

            Like Plath’s mirror, the person with dementia isn’t being cruel, only truthful.

Anne-Marie Erickson

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