Fighting Memory Loss… Embracing Memory Loss
Memory loss, dementia, or the most commonly heard, Alzheimer’s disease, are amongst the most terrifying diagnoses for millions of Americans and their families. It is estimated that there are approximately 4.5 million Americans that have Alzheimer’s disease. The thought of losing a person to a tangible physical illness is devastating enough, but those families that lose their loved ones years before they experience their loved one’s physical death is beyond tragic. For these families, life is never the same, or ‘normal’, and it’s important for them to educate themselves, get support and help with care, and learn how to love and embrace each moment with your loved one.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dementia as a word for a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. Memory loss, especially short-term memory loss, is a symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is the most commonly known form of dementia. To date, the Alzheimer’s Association recognizes that there are about 70 known forms of dementia, including Vascular Dementia (caused by stroke), Lewy Body Disease, and Frontotemporal Dementia. It’s important to remember that dementia is not a mental illness, but a physical disease of the brain whose signs and symptoms are seen in the change of a person’s personality, memory, and ability to perform daily tasks. Inside the brain, plaques and tangles, which are not present in a normal, healthy aging brain, have begun to grow and inhibit brain cells from communicating with each other. Unfortunately oxidation and inflammation can occur within the brain and speed up this process, causing permanent deterioration of the brain cells.
So how do we handle such a devastating disease? Until there is a cure, we must first Fight, then Embrace.
As we care for our physical bodies daily, we must also Fight to maintain our brain and memory skills. Industry research suggest that a diet rich in antioxidants, potent chemicals found in fruits and vegetables that give them their vibrant colors, help protect the brain against oxidation and inflammation, and help enable the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries, such as blueberries, black berries, cranberries, strawberries, and also oranges, red grapes, avocados, spinach, broccoli, red bell peppers, and beets. In addition to diet, be attentive to exercise your brain. Take a class. Learn a new language. Take up crossword puzzles or trivia. Switch for the day and use your non-dominant hand for daily activities. There are number of ways to exercise your brain, and watching TV is not one of them. Try something new. In the long run, you will be happy you did.
For those of you who are worried that dementia is in your genetic make up, take heart. Most of the time, dementia is not genetically passed. Only early-onset dementia is proven to have a genetic link. Early-onset dementia is one that affects a person before the age of 65 and is a much more aggressive form of the disease.
So how can you tell if someone has normal forgetfulness or dementia? Be aware when signs and symptoms become consistent. Your loved one could demonstrate consistency in multiple areas, such as confusion, orientation of time and place, difficulty in performing daily routine activities, short-term memory loss, anxiety and agitation, paranoia, speech difficulties, and change in judgment and personality (just to name a few). Don’t wait. Take appropriate steps and seek professional help. First, take some time to observe your loved one. Be objective and take notes. Also ask a third party person, like a friend of the family or a neighbor, to observe as well. They will have a different perspective and be less emotionally involved. Next, find a good neurologist in the area and have your loved one evaluated. Share with them your list of concerns and issues you have observed. Third, educate yourself, and start to receive assistance and support from the professionals in the senior care industry.
As you educate yourself, remember that a person with dementia suffers from a change in their reality and their perspective on life as a whole. For example, an 80 year old gentleman with dementia may believe himself only to be 20 years old and not married (which would explain why he no longer recognizes his spouse). Someone may also think that their children are stealing from them, or that there are intruders in the home. Others may sit by the door and wait for the bus each day, as they did when they were working. Bottom line is, they no longer live in our reality, but live in their own reality. This is where you Embrace their memory loss. Never try to drag someone with dementia into our world, but step into their world. The key to working with someone with this illness is to listen, be respectful and affirm that they are still an intelligent adult, defuse any fears or concerns they may have, and make sure they are physically safe and cared for. All other matters, like them remembering how many grandchildren they have, are just not important. In order for this to be accomplished, you will need to start ‘therapeutic fibbing.’ For example, I once worked with a woman who thought I was her granddaughter (I happen to look like one of her granddaughters). When she saw me, I played along and was her granddaughter for her. By doing that, I embraced her memory loss, stepped into her world, and made that moment matter for her. She would have never believed that I wasn’t her granddaughter, so why argue with her and have her become agitated. Remember, you will never win an argument with someone with dementia. Pick your battles, and try not to correct them unnecessarily. If they tell you that they went to work today, when they haven’t worked in years, step into their story and ask them how work was today. Embrace the person they have become, while you mourn the loss of the person they were. I know this can be very difficult for families, but once you Embrace, life does become easier and you can then focus on cherishing moments with your loved one.
Diana Graziano Bowden is the President of Senior Care Consulting. Her highly developed network and experience in Home Care, Hospice, Assisted Living, and Dementia Care helps to create a trusting and nurturing environment for families, providing the support they need to make good decisions for their aging loved ones.
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