My mom has a hard time talking now. She utters strings of sounds that resemble words but make no sense unless you know her. Somehow, though, she still understands feelings: happy, sad, thankful. So we stick to activities that awaken emotions. Visits with old friends revive her love of life.
This week I organized things so she could have quality time with her lifelong best friend. They met in first grade, shared teenage secrets, and learned the jitterbug in poodle skirts. They helped each other through the challenges of motherhood and marriage and never, ever lost touch. As I prepped Mom for the visit, I reminded her how they went dancing on Saturday nights and lived in the same town for many years. She smiled but had no idea who or what I was talking about.
When her friend arrived, she was thrilled just to be near her. Though Mom can’t tell stories well, she is an ardent listener. Hearing about grandchildren and holiday plans made her grin. She loved the tale of her friend sneaking all the way around her back yard just to escape the notice of her barking dog. Mom’s comments were limited to a few things she can repeat — “Oh, that’s nice” and “I like that” — but she seemed to absorb the essence of her old pal as they sat together. The visit boosted her more than any vitamin could.
Her friend’s visit meant a lot to me, too. Some of Mom’s family members don’t want to see her because they think her condition will upset them too much. Whoa, they are missing something precious. Mom’s words and abilities are dwindling fast. This is the time to be a witness her sweetness, before dementia erases it for good.
My moments with her are like butterfly joy. Her spirit hovers, comes close, then moves on to matters I can only imagine. I know this time will end, but I wish with all my heart that butterfly season would last forever.
If someone in your family has dementia, you might be worried about losing your memory. While there are genetic factors we can’t control, studies now say that exercise and other good habits may protect our ability to remember.
In a recent AARP Magazine article, Lisa Davis (no relation to me) described how she investigated her own troubling lapses of memory. Davis went to Maryland’s Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness, to undergo a comprehensive process now used to assess cognitive health. The brain exam begins with a health history to identify possible sources of past trauma (like concussions) or physical problems (high cholesterol, for example). From there, the exam moves into cognition tests that require you to complete word lists and solve visual problems.
The final aspect of the health review focuses on fitness. A person must ride a stationary bike while electrodes monitor how well their body pumps blood to the brain. As it turns out, this sort of exercise may be a really effective activity for preventing the advance of Alzheimer’s disease.
Davis cites the work of Dr. Arthur Kramer of the University of Urbana-Champaign whose studies have shown that older adults who walked for 45 minutes, 3 days a week, showed marked improvements on cognitive tests after one year of sustained walking.
In addition to adding this kind of basic exercise program to your life, you may want to consider other strategies suggested by AARP. They include:
- Learning a new skill — Have you tried knitting or carpentry? Mastering new ideas helps your brain build cognitive resilience.
- Getting sleep!! If caregiving responsibilities disrupt your sleep, try to figure out what you can change to get the rest a healthy brain needs. Consider respite care or trading night time roles with another family member so you can restore your cognitive health.
- Eating better — Focus on green leafy vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil. Limit refined carbohydrates like bread and starchy snacks.
- Challenging yourself to memorize things — Try learning the names of trees and flowers in your neighborhood or the top golfers in the U.S. Open. Using your memory skills help you retain them.
- Learn to meditate — Practicing meditation improves breathing; this reduces stress and increases blood flow to the brain.
Of course, it’s easy enough to read a list of things we ought to do. If you are a caregiver, just keeping up with the demands of daily life might feel like a marathon. But no one else will protect your future health if you don’t do it yourself. Pick one thing in the list above that you’re not currently doing and make an effort to try it three times this week. They say it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Your future is likely to stretch much longer than that. So why not start preserving cherished memories today?