Learning from Dementia

Every time I think I have it figured out, I learn something new from caring for a mother with dementia. Today, Mom taught me a lesson I should have learned long ago. Although she is impaired in a hundred ways, she still finds ways to control her life, no matter what others are doing.

Learning from Dementia

We had a visit from some family members Mom hadn’t seen in three years. These are people she always liked and I expected her to be really pleased by their familiar voices and efforts to re-connect. All morning I said, “Uncle So-and-So is coming to visit. Remember Uncle So-and-So?”

She laughed, like she always does when something appeals to her. As I dressed her in a bright green shirt and combed her hair, I explained ten times that we were having visitors. Mom seemed happy, even eager, for the visit.

Most research about dementia recommends maintaining social connections with people as a strategy to improve the health of caregivers and dementia patients. Many studies — including the work of Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago — have found that elderly people with higher levels of social interaction exhibit better brain health. Bryan James found that rates of cognitive decline were 70 percent lower “in people with frequent social contact than those with low social activity.” James — quoted in an article by Jill Suttie — says, “Social activity is related to motor function, just like physical exercise is related. We can’t determine which is most important—they each contribute a piece of the puzzle.”

I know for a fact that visits from some people improve my mother’s mood and boost her morale. We have a friend who used to own a coffee shop where my mother once enjoyed ice cream sundaes. When he visits our house, she recognizes his voice and perks up at the sound. Although these simple interactions please Mom, her behavior changes when we have a visit from family members. For some reason, my mother “plays possum” when relatives arrive. A few months back, two of her sisters came to visit, along with their four daughters. My mom pretended to be asleep the entire time.

I’m not sure what provokes this, but my theory is that she doesn’t want them to know the truth about her illness. She pretends to be sleeping so she doesn’t have to reveal that she can’t respond to their questions or remember their names. If she’s just snoozing in the chair, she can experience the comfort of listening to them without feeling the pressure to search for words she lost a long time ago.

Today, she repeated the same kind of performance — then as soon as Uncle So-and-So was in the car, Mom was smiling and laughing just like usual. Thank goodness he’s a man with a sense of humor — and a very big heart. Even if she didn’t talk, his visit meant the world to me.

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