I have an announcement to make. It’s going to be controversial and many people will find it shocking but I am going to say it anyway. While Alzheimer’s and dementia may be horrific, they can also be a blessing in disguise.
Yes. A blessing. This opinion is not based on any scientific theory that I found in some learned tome. This is based on years of personal experience when I was taking care of my dear Mom who passed away in May.
How could such a dread condition possibly be a blessing?
A friend of mine in Washington, D.C was visiting her mother in a beautiful new assisted living facility to which she had just moved. Her mom did not have dementia. She was in perfect health both mentally and physically. The two of them were laughing and chattering away in the garden enjoying the warm weather.
Her mother said she was a bit thirsty and asked if she would mind going inside to the kitchen to bring her a glass of water. She did just that. When she came back, her mother was dead.
No chance to say goodbye. One moment, my friend is talking to her mother. The next moment, her mother is gone. No time to understand. No time to process what happened.
Like my friend, I also had to deal with unspeakable loss. But I did not lose my Mom suddenly. I lost her slowly. So slowly I did not even realize it that it was happening. I was losing her a centimeter at a time. I had plenty of time to spend in her presence. I could tell her I loved her. I could tell she was beautiful. Not once, but over and over again.
I slowly learned how to deal with the horrors of her condition. Did it feel painful when she said that I was not her son? Of course it did. On certain days, it’s true that she did not know who I was. But I always knew who she was.
Did she repeat things over and over? Of course she did but that’s par for the course with dementia.
On a frigid cold winter day, I mentioned to her that it was minus 30 with the wind chill adding that it was not surprising considering it was January.
She said, “It’s not January. It’s October.”
I thought briefly of correcting her. But I stopped. What was to be gained by doing that? Instead I said, “You are right. Absolutely right, Anyu. It is October and the red and yellow leaves look so beautiful.”
Instead of a scowl, I was rewarded with a warm smile.
When you contradict or correct someone with dementia, you are increasing their anxiety. You see, they think they are right. But then at the same time, they think that you might be right. Now they are confused and that is what makes them agitated.
If you confirm their view of the world, you reduce their anxiety.
For a few weeks one summer more than 15 years ago, I visited my father every day in the hospital after he had been seriously injured in a car accident. On most days I found him in a cheerful mood.
One one particular occasion, he appeared very anxious.
“Hi, Daddy. How are you doing?”
“Never mind how I am doing. Those two horrible women behind that curtain are stealing your mother’s fur coat. Don’t just stand there. Do something!”
Did I tell him it was summer and that there was no fur coat? Did I tell him there were no women behind the curtain, horrible or otherwise?
No. I did nothing of the sort.
I went behind the curtain and said, “Hey, you two ladies over there. Put down that coat this instant. Have you no shame? Oh look. There’s a policeman. Excuse me, officer, but these two women were attempting to steal my mother’s fur coat. Could you please place them under immediate arrest? Thank you officer.”
I waited for a moment and emerged from behind the curtain.
My father was no longer agitated. He looked calm and had started to sample the lunch he had earlier left untouched.
If you are taking care of a Mom or Dad with dementia, you have a tough job and you have to take the time to care of yourself as well.
But they are your parents. They are still around. Relish that gift and tell them that you love them even if they may no longer understand what you are saying.
If your parents do not have dementia and are in the best of health say it anyway. Say it one more time. Say it while you can. Say it while they are here.