Grief: Where We Begin and End

Grief can hit us the moment we realize a loved one has #dementia. We understand quickly that we’re losing a bit of them everyday. It’s natural to feel sadness as we note these changes. But as #caregivers, it’s our job to find the emotional resources needed to maintain stability. This becomes more difficult when daily losses begin to multiply.

Last year grief got the best of me. My mom passed away in June and I stopped writing here. Each time I tried to write, I felt like I had no energy or insight. After many months, my equilibrium is finally returning. Last week I published some work for the first time this year. The writing process fueled me like strong, delicious coffee. It helped me focus and concentrate. The product of this effort is a review essay that appeared in #CleaverMagazine.

grief essay in Cleaver Magazine

My work is a review of the book Room for Grace, by Daniel and Maureen Kenner, and a meditation on grief. I hesitated when I was first asked to write about this book. It describes the experience of a family that loses two parents within a few months. One parent has #dementia and the other has #cancer. Being a caregiver for someone with dementia is hard enough when you’re healthy. Doing it while fighting cancer must be like climbing Everest.

Other People’s Grief

As I read more about the Kenner family, it became clear that their losses were much greater than my own. While reflecting on their fate, I felt my perspective change. I was buoyed up by a rush of compassion. My own grief began to recede. This experience of transforming the negative into the positive is something I did every day as a caregiver, but I had forgotten all about that. Looking back I realize how much I gained from a role I resisted from the very beginning. Perhaps the book will help you gain perspective on your own suffering. Let me know your thoughts if you decide to read it.

Can We Grow Old Without Getting Dementia?

Can we grow old without getting dementia? If you’re a #caregiver bearing witness to #dementia, the prospect of getting older may fill you with fear. Watching my mother’s struggle, I wonder if I can live a long life without losing my mind. Researchers around the world have been doing studies on very old people living healthy lives. Their habits can teach us something.

Can We Grow Old Without Getting Dementia

Current life expectancy in the U. S. is 78.6 years according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  Studies in Scandinavia, Australia, and Italy have examined the health traits of people in the 90 to 100 year age bracket. Their findings suggest that it’s possible to reach advanced age without developing #dementia.

Aging around the world

A Swedish study looked at a group of 100 people who reached the age of 100 or above. Among those 100 or older, only 27% of the group had problems with memory or word lists. Personality assessments also showed that people in this group were “more responsible, capable, easygoing and less prone to anxiety” than the general population in general. Most were also blessed with a strong physical constitution and few were plagued by high blood pressure.

The Italian research project focused on Acciaroli, in Southern Italy. This town is home to a very high number of centenarians. Town residents over the age of 100 showed low levels of a hormone called adrenomedullin. Adrenomedullin slows circulation which can lead to serious diseases such as heart problems. The 100 year-olds of Acciaroli had adrenomedullin levels similar to people in their 20s and 30s. The study looked at the diet of Acciaroli elders and found they consumed lots of local fish, game, rosemary, and olive oil. Their recipe for long life incorporated another special ingredient: romance! One researcher, Dr. Maisel, observed that, “Sexual activity among the elderly appears to be rampant.”

The RDNS Institute which assists over 100,000 Australian elders, reviewed the health records of more than one thousand people aged 95 and older. Although the group showed some evidence of chronic illnesses, one researcher noted, “They seem to be able to manage better.” One amazing statistic is that among those who reached age 100 years, their need for home visits actually declined! As with the other groups, researchers emphasize that, “Good genetics are important, and so are good habits regarding food and drink.” The Australian group also seemed to manage the stress of life more easily than most people. One participant said, “I sort of don’t worry about things too much.”

Are fewer people Getting dementia?

Finally, a comprehensive study conducted by Qiu, Chengxuan and Fratiglioni, Laura examined data on dementia around the world. They found that dementia development rates are declining in many parts of the world, including North America.  Studies of large populations also showed that among those over the age of 100 “male centenarians are more likely to be cognitively intact than their female contemporaries.” In a British study of 11,000 people aged 100 or older dementia was recorded in only 11% of people.

What does it mean for us?

Obviously, we should not all expect to live into our 90’s. Genetics, health habits, and access to care have a tremendous impact on the extent of our life span. But even if I could get old without getting #dementia, I’m not sure I want to live into my nineties. I’ve met a lot of people who have celebrated their 90th and 100th birthdays. Those who have outlived their loved ones don’t seem to enjoy the benefits of their longevity. The really lucky elders are those who are still closely attached to their families in old age — and that seems to be a rare thing. My current plan is to keep eating lots of greens and olive oil, get daily exercise, and keep a little romance going at all times. Because if I do eventually lose my mind, I’d like to do it with a smile on my face that makes the nurses wonder why I’m so happy.