It’s amazing how many things change when memory fades and falters. In my experience with my mother the fading refers to memories that seem to simply disappear and the faltering to the encroaching confusion that pushes hard against the weakening memories.
Last week I was out in her yard talking with the man who has handled the home-place landscaping for many years. He remembers my mother from the day she married my step-father some thirty years ago—days when she was a vibrant leader in the community.
He said, “Your mother is the same as she was 10 years ago. We can chat and talk and she’s no different. She’s okay.” As we talked I gently reminded him that she can’t hold on to a new thought for more than a few minutes, and that’s why she asks him the same questions over and over again. “What do you have planted there? That looks interesting, what have you planted? Oh, are you planting something there? What have you planted there? How nice that you’re planting something there, what is it?” He thought for a minute and said, “Well, that’s not all bad because it’s new again and she can enjoy it over and over again.”
If it were as simple as not remembering what had been planted in the big vegetable bed it might be okay. But it’s much more than that. Along with memory issues there are often visual disturbances that keep the person from understanding what they’re seeing right in front of them, and word-finding problems that cause them to substitute words that may completely change the meaning of their sentences. It’s a mixed bag and it takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with the swirl of confusion both for the person with dementia and for the people who are helping.
Here are some examples of how it can work:
- If the cat and dog food items are spread out and spilled across the tops of the washer and dryer, those appliances cease to exist—they have become the place for animal feeding.
- If the large dry-cat-food tin runs to empty and there’s an unopened 14-lb. bag of food right beside the tin, the new bag of food won’t exist because the tin is empty. Therefore, there is no cat food, and the floor (or top of the dryer) must be searched for individual pieces of kibble to press into cans of wet food.
- If the reason for taking medication has faded, then there is no mental trigger to take the pills, even if the brightly colored pill dispenser is within sight on the table. Conversely, on a good day the sight of the pill dispenser may trigger interest and multiple days of pills may be taken at the same time, or several times during that day.
- If a person can’t remember what they wore yesterday, then they will often default to wearing the same thing day after day for weeks. Visual disturbances keep them from seeing or perceiving the stains and grime, and fear of losing what little control they have over their life can make them refuse to change their clothes when prompted.
- If a person with dementia puts an appointment or a name on the calendar as a reminder they may well lose the context of what those words mean. She/he may say, “Help! I found a name on a map somewhere and I don’t know what it means. Is it your name and where are you?”
It’s hard. It’s wearing. It’s heartbreaking. I have to face every day with a predetermined mind set of patience, gentleness, kindness. As an ever-present reminder there is a small stitched sampler hanging on the kitchen wall, directly opposite of where I usually sit. “Love is patient, Love is kind. I Corinthians 13.”