While visiting my Dad at his Alzheimer’s group home, I became aware of a resident in her late eighties pacing about with a distressed look on her face. A well-intentioned aide approached her and gently attempted to redirect her behavior. The resident protested and explained that she was looking for her mother, who was supposed to come to get her. With great caring the aide replied,
“Sweetie, as much as your Mom would love to be with you, I’m sure you remember that she passed away many years ago.”
The little girl now in the body of a woman in her eighties, dissolved into tears, crying “Mommy, Mommy!”
Her emotional agony lasted about two minutes until, mercifully, her lack of short-term memory rescued her, and she once again went in search of her mother.
Reality Is Relative
Reality is relative for all of us; but reality for someone with dementia, reality is often vastly different. Since their condition has robbed them of many of the cognitive tools they need to live in our reality, when we visit with them, we should visit inside their reality. Enter the world in which they have found refuge.
People with dementia gradually lose the ability to convert experiences into memories. A well-functioning brain stores an experience as it progresses, much like a computer on “automatic save”. For people with dementia, automatic save is not working. When we expect them to recall an event from this morning, or even five minutes ago, we might as well be looking for a document we typed into a computer that rebooted before we could save the document. As far as the computer’s memory is concerned that document never existed; it has been cast into oblivion. So too what occurs within the immediate event horizon of an Alzheimer patient is not captured by memory and disappears into the “never was”.
No New Remembering
People with dementia often live within memories from the past. Typically the most enduring memories for all of us are those composed of strong emotional and sensory content, as well as cognition. These are memories that have been called up and reassembled over a lifetime, wearing a deep memory path that makes it easier for dementia patients to follow and thereby retrieve. New occurrences do not have a well-worn path; in fact they leave no imprint at all. It may have happened in your reality, but it does not follow that it happened in theirs. Trying to remind and convince an Alzheimer’s patient that your memory is reality, serves no positive purpose. It most likely will lead to your frustration and their sense of inadequacy or anger that you doubt them.
Joining your loved one in the safety of their reality is the most caring place to be during your visit.