Tag Archives: caregiver stories

Measuring Time through Symptoms

Now we are moving into more difficult territory. Mom’s dementia is pushing onward and she is starting to suffer from muscle rigidity. As she soldiers through this new challenge, I reflect on other symptoms that were once so terrifying and now seem familiar as old friends. Remembering her list of symptoms is a weird method of tracking time —  but it’s the wrong way to measure a life.


Before and during this long, sinister illness, my mom added up to so much more than her catalog of lost skills. Even today she loves people with a passion and her cheerfulness is amazing. A friend of hers told me recently, “Janet is an angel spirit.” Feels true today, though I seldom thought about it in my youth.

She was a disciplined and orderly mom. Her rigid household methods were the opposite of mine. One peek at her regimented closets made me wonder if I’d somehow been born to the wrong parent. But she maintained a deep sense of fun that grew much stronger as dementia erased her tools of organization. Now she is like a being of pure love. I know I’m biased, but I’m not the only person who sees her this way.

While contemplating the power that time exercises over all of us, I came across a beautiful passage in the work of Louise Erdrich. She is the author of many books — including Four Souls, from which this quote is taken:

      “Time is the water in which we live, and we breath it like fish. It’s hard to swim against the current. Onrushing, inevitable, carried like a leaf…time is an element no human has mastered. For what is a man, what are we all, but bits of time caught for a moment in a tangle of blood, bones, skin, and brain? I am a sorry bit of time myself. We are time’s containers. Time pours into us and then pours out again. In between the two pourings we live our destiny.”

Too often I say that time is my enemy. It gets the upper hand as I rush through each day. It may be better to view time as a gift. It is the one resource we cannot increase or store up. To measure it is no sin, unless you forget to cherish it, too.


Dementia and the Animal Planet

As a child I begged my parents for a dog. My mom was dead set against it because she knew that, despite my promise to look after a puppy, she’d end up taking care of it. Though her parents and siblings loved pets, my mother did not. So it surprised me when dementia turned her into an animal lover.


Her transformation was sudden. Maybe it was triggered by the prevalence of wildlife in my Pocono environment. Mom had been living in the suburbs for decades before she came to stay with me in the mountains. Shortly after arriving, she started laughing with delight at the sight of bunnies on the lawn or deer in the yard.

Animals’ abilities to calm dementia patients are now being explored in many settings. Mara M. Baun, DNSc, a coordinator of the doctoral nursing program at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at the Houston School of Nursing in Houston, has been researching the benefits of therapy animals for over ten years. Her work is described in Everyday Health by Madeline Vann. One of Baun’s studies compared adult social interaction in an Alzheimer’s unit — with and without the presence of a dog.

Baun’s research showed that patients displayed more interactive behaviors when they were with the pet. Though some of the behavior was aimed at the dog, rather than a human, the effects were similar whether the dog and dementia patients were one-on-one or in a group setting.

Lots of elder care and residential living programs are also trying to harness the power of animal therapy in their programs for dementia patients. The Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Massachusetts includes animal therapy as part of its program. They use a llama and several golden retrievers to help soothe Alzheimer’s patients in various stages of the disease. Residents who become agitated are often calmed by contact with these animals.

Of course, the animals also require care. If residential programs “forget” about the health or nutritional needs of their therapy animals, that should be a red flag for families. As my mother often reminded me in childhood, “A dog should be as clean and healthy as its owner.” It took me years to fully understand what she meant. But I did finally earn the right to live among some beautiful animals.