Dementia: Finding a Way Home

“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.”

Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

We all know an elder, be they a parent, grandparent, spouse, or friend; their aging, along with our own, is inescapable. Suddenly the years are decades, our children have children, and the memory storehouse of our lives contains abundant joy, sadness, fear, and loss.

Connecting with our aging peers ignites shared memories of an earlier time. For the person experiencing short-term memory loss those early memories are a treasure trove of living history just waiting to be unlocked toward helping them find their way home.

Shared Stories, Restored Connections

A few years ago, my older sister Margaret, a retired school teacher living in England, began exhibiting signs of short-term memory loss. During family chats, her adult children talked about her decline into what appeared to be advancing dementia. My most recent call to her was on the occasion of her 84th birthday on January 6th. Aware of her inability to connect with what may have happened an hour ago, I opened up a conversation about our childhood home, in Ireland. I could hear the joy in her voice as we entered the time machine of shared childhood memories. I could hear the joy in her voice as we entered the time machine of shared childhood memories. The memories triggered detailed descriptions, many provided by her. The number of steps up to our front door, the big toy cupboard under the corner window in our bedroom, and the view of the apple orchard and meadow that came alive with daffodils in the spring. Our conversation was short. Her laughter and joy brought a sense of belonging to herself and made my day!

As a result of these conversations, I have begun writing down more of these memories for her children to share with her, to help alleviate Margaret’s stress and fear, along with their own.

Diagnosing Short-Term Memory Loss

When a friend or loved one exhibits signs of short-term memory loss a natural response may be one of fear. There are numerous reasons for short-term memory loss, not the least of which could be increased stress due to grief over the loss of a spouse or the outcome of recent surgery under general anesthesia. When surgery is performed under general anesthesia it is not unusual for an individual (especially an elder) to experience a period of short-term memory loss combined with confusion. This is commonly referred to as “post-operative cognitive decline.” This can be alarming to an elder and his or her family, so whenever possible consult with the surgeon and the anesthesiologist prior to any elective surgery. There are several types of anesthetics, some having longer-lasting effects than others.

However much you think you may know about short-memory loss, it is always best to seek out the advice of a memory care professional. While your loved one’s primary care physician may give a general diagnosis of dementia, a referral for a complete evaluation can bring you peace of mind and is an excellent first step.

Moving Forward After Diagnosis: A Plan for Support

Once a definitive diagnosis of dementia has been arrived at, there will be much to learn for the family and primary care partner. Increasing memory loss is as unique as the individual. In the early stages of short-term memory loss, life will not seem to change all that dramatically. Where available, family health and memory history can be a helpful frame of reference for mapping a strategy for short- and long-term care. You can also belly up to a keyboard, hit search, and uncover a vortex of information that may have no connection to your loved one’s situation. This can be overwhelming. Save your energy for the journey ahead.

A person who has just received a diagnosis of dementia or the onset of Alzheimer’s needs our compassion and promise of support. For that individual, everything has changed. Being in denial no longer works. With the reality of this life-changing news, fear moves in. The late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss- American psychiatrist, gave us the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While Elisabeth’s work focused primarily on death and dying, a person who has been given a diagnosis of progressive memory loss is surely experiencing a type of death. With the incremental loss of independence, all five Kübler-Ross stages of personal grief will come and go.

In 1994, on the occasion of his 83rd birthday, President Ronald Reagan gave his last speech to a gathering of 2,500 people in Washington, DC. He delivered his talk without any apparent distress. Later that evening when he and his wife, Nancy, returned to their hotel suite, her husband turned to her and said, “I have got to wait a minute. I am not quite sure where I am.” Dr. John Hutton, Reagan’s personal physician, later told The New York Times that Mrs. Reagan simply said, “Ronnie, your clothes are down at the end of this room and you go down and you will find out where they are.” This turned out to be a defining experience for Mrs. Reagan and confirmed what close friends and family may have already observed and reported to her.

Share Your Journey

Prior to the revelation of Ronald Reagan’s illness, dementia had often been a source of shame for families, hidden from view. Nancy Reagan did not conceal her husband’s decline into Alzheimer’s. On the contrary. For more than a decade Mrs. Reagan shared their intimate and challenging journey through all stages of her husband’s illness and decline into the final stages of Alzheimer’s, until his death in 2004. Their very public journey helped open up a larger conversation in this country.

There is no shame in seeking help. As the television personality, Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Let people know what is going on with your loved one. You may be surprised to find out how many people are living through similar experiences. Sharing the journey with others is the best form of self-care.

To learn more about supporting your loved one through dementia, attend Ann’s talk on February 21st at Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness. The talk is free, but registration is requested.

Register Now

© 2019 Ann V. Quinlan

About the Author

Ann Quinlan

Ann V. Quinlan is a geriatric care manager, dementia care specialist and coach, and founder of healthyagingmatters.com. Ann brings over 25 years of experience in deepening her understanding of the sadness, grief, frustration, and stress experienced when one is caring for a loved one with short-term memory loss due to any form of dementia. Through a gentle process of interpersonal engagement and enquiry, Ann helps uncover what may be getting in the way toward finding a more harmonious solution to the simple activities of daily living, for all concerned. You may reach out to Ann at 207/899-2606 or 207/776-3747, or email her at ann@spiraljourneys.com.

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