Forty Winks to Fight Dementia

A gift doesn’t excite me much, unless it’s something truly heartfelt or desperately needed. This week I got an incredible gift of the second type: two nights of deep, restful sleep. I never thought sleep would mean so much to me.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Don’t horse around! Get some sleep!

I have written about sleep research before, but sleep is much more meaningful when you actually get some. This week I was having a surgical procedure, so I forced myself to bed early to help my body prepare — and then recover. My sister was back on caregiver duty so I wasn’t doing extra labor for my mom. It’s impossible to put worry out of my mind for two whole days, but I tried to minimize it. Two nights of deep sleep really took the edge off my anxiety.

A New York Times article by Maria Konnikova quotes sleep researcher Maiken Nedergaard as saying, “Sleep is such a dangerous thing to do, when you’re out in the wild. It has to have a basic evolutional function. Otherwise it would have been eliminated.” Konnikova suggests that in the era when humans were living out in the natural world, sleeping would have put us at risk of “death-by-leopard-in-the-night”, something caregivers might understand. We know that when loved ones get agitated or hallucinate at night, they can create chaos that seems as dangerous as any untamed animal. But we put ourselves in danger, too, when we fail to rest our brains.

A range of studies have turned up data showing there is greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults with insomnia. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has also published research linking lack of sleep to spikes in the hunger hormone ghrelin which may lead to overeating and weight gain. It’s no wonder that caregivers often end up fighting so many personal health problems — dementia can make sleep a rare commodity.

If you’re sleeping badly on a regular basis, here are some ideas that may help you get better rest. Try at least one of them, as a gift to yourself.

  • Leave all iPhones, laptops or electronic devices outside your bedroom. Nothing ruins my sleep plans like a late night email … which leads me to web surfing….that never ends when it should.
  • Set and enforce a real schedule for going to bed and getting up in the morning. Try to stick to it for at least three days and see if you rest better.
  • Resist TV for thirty minutes before you close your eyes. Televisions give off light that lowers levels of melatonin. If you need a distraction before bed, try music instead.
  • If anxiety is keeping you awake, use paper and a pen to banish it. Write your fears and worries in a small notebook for no more than 15 minutes. Then close the book (literally) and put your problems away. In most cases, there is nothing you can do to resolve thorny issues at 11 pm, so give yourself permission to stop fretting and start sleeping. You can always go back to the worry wheel tomorrow.

Sleep is essential because it appears to be the period when our brains clean themselves of accumulated waste. This garbage includes amyloid, a protein linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In the NYT article, Dr. Nedergaard offers a metaphor for the role sleep plays in our lives. She tells us to consider a fish tank, “If you have a tank and no filter, the fish will eventually die.” When we sleep deeply, our cerebral cleaning system has a chance to filter the trash out of our brain so we can resume healthy lives in the morning.

It is so rare for me to sleep long and deeply twice in one week. But today I really feel the difference. The wound from my surgery is not throbbing the way it did after the procedure. My thinking is very clear and my mood is good, despite the fact that it’s a grey, rainy day. I know that the problems that tortured me last week still need solutions. But a clear mind can solve problems way better than a tired one. If you want to give yourself (and your family) a real gift, do something tonight that increases your odds of getting forty winks.

Caregiver Strength

Some days, I feel 100% capable of helping my mom. If I must run 20 errands and make 10 phone calls, I will. But my emotions are like the snow in my yard, sitting in an icy pile which could support a car…or melt to a trickle that can break through concrete, through rock and….shatter my mask of strength.

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This week a friend took me for a session with someone who sees spirits. I’m not sure how much I believe in these readings, but they almost always bring up stuff I’ve been trying to ignore. This encounter was no exception. The seer told me that someone in my life had one foot in this world, and one in the next. That person, she said, has an impaired mind — like someone with Alzheimer’s. Hmmm.

My tears did not begin to pour until she told me that my grandmother’s spirit visits my mom (who else could it be?) — trying to help her understand that the other side is not a bad place. Once I began to think about this (whether it is possible or not), the floodgates opened and I was confronting many thoughts and feelings I keep suppressed.

Anyone who has cared for, or been close to, someone with dementia knows that your feelings about the disease are always complicated. We don’t want to lose the ones we love, but we hate seeing them suffer. My mom is still so cheerful despite her near complete lack of skills. This week I also heard a poem called “Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani that called up an image of her. Without permission, I can’t reprint the entire poem but here is how it begins [click link to hear it]:

This is for the fat girls.

This is for the little brothers.

This is for the school-yard wimps, this is for the childhood bullies who tormented them.

This is for the former prom queen, this is for the milk-crate ball players.

This is for the nighttime cereal eaters and for the retired, elderly Wal-Mart store front door greeters. Shake the dust.

This is for the benches and the people sitting upon them,

for the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns,

for the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold up their children,

for the nighttime schoolers and the midnight bike riders who are trying to fly. Shake the dust.

This is for the two-year-olds who cannot be understood because they speak half-English and half-God. Shake the dust.

That line about the two-year-olds was the one that got me. The words describe my mother’s way of speaking. No matter how much I want to, I can’t interpret her “half-God” language. When I’m feeling strong, it’s not that hard to pretend I know what she’s talking about. But there are moments — like after my time with the spirit reader — when that trickle of feeling gets stronger and seems to wash the strength right out of me. I just don’t know what to say to her.

I’m getting some of my fortitude back now because it’s a grey Sunday and even the clouds are speaking that half-God language. Although it’s scary, it helps to spend some time listening to those caged emotions struggling to push past our brittle surface. These feelings pull our attention to mysterious places where we can ponder — and deepen our sense of — the bewildering dimensions of life and disease.