The Gift of Dementia

Hand, Old, Age, Skuril, Elderly Woman, GrandmaIf someone had asked me, back in 2008, what gift I was being given by my mother’s encroaching dementia, I’d have been hard-pressed to give them an answer.

As anyone who has been in intimate contact with this condition will know, the hardest time is the early stage – the time when a normally functioning, intelligent human being is experiencing very specific and often debilitating gaps in memory and in the ability to cope on a day-to-day basis because of them.

It was me who grassed Mum up to the doctor.  That was certainly the way she saw it.  By telling her GP of my concerns, I unleashed a battery of humiliating tests and visiting busybodies.  She never forgave me for that.  When her condition became so bad that I had to give up work and move away from my family to become her live-in carer, she threw it in my face at least once a day.

Those were easily the hardest months of my life.  So the gift?  I was given the most incredible insight into the way minds work.  Usually, minds are sophisticated, faster than light and keep their backs, so to speak, well covered.  As Mum’s slowed, though, I was able to watch and observe – to see how a trigger experience could change and shape subsequent behaviour.

Everyday Life, Washing Dishes, Cup, GlassLet us take, for example, the story of the washing up liquid bottle.

While she was still living alone, an occupational therapist came to assess Mum in her house.  Mum found that threatening, insulting, patronising and intrusive.  She realised she was being ‘tested’ but didn’t know why.  At one point, the OT held up Mum’s bottle of washing up liquid, covered the label and asked her what it was used for.  We never knew whether or not Mum had been able to answer her correctly.

Mum retold that story many times afterwards, but in her version, the OT asked this question of the grandchildren.   That was the only way Mum could justify someone asking such a stupid question.  In her version, the grandchildren giggled, rolled their eyes and then answered correctly.  In the event, Mum had had no one to giggle with.  She had been face to face with a person who, in her own home, was checking whether she knew what washing up liquid was and she’d felt violated.

Several months later, when I was living there, she suddenly stopped using washing up liquid when she washed the dishes.  I asked her why she didn’t put some in the water.
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I don’t know.  I just get a funny feeling about it.  I mean, they keep coming in and turning the bottle around so you can’t see the label.”

I looked and saw that the bottle was on the worktop, but the label was facing the wall.  Seeing the bottle with its label concealed had clearly triggered memories of the therapist’s visit that were sufficiently uncomfortable to make her want to stop using the product.

She could no longer remember the trigger, but the resulting emotion remained and affected her behaviour.

A visiting professional would have viewed Mum’s behaviour as illogical and a symptom of her disease.  Because I could follow the trace of events, though, I was able to recognise that she was attempting to avoid an unpleasant feeling by ignoring the existence of the obscured bottle.

How many of our behaviour patterns, I wonder, stem from a suppressed unpleasant memory?


19 comments on “The Gift of Dementia

  1. What an enlightening post, watching how Dementia alters a persons perceptions and behaviours beggars belief, yet their coping mechanisms are inspiring. I wonder if the OT ever knew how what seemed an innocuous question alter someone’s life

      • The OT came to ‘The Workplace’ listening to the answers our residents gave opened my eyes (and cheered my heart) for example the OT held up a pen and asked ‘my lady’ if she knew what it was, she replied “Of course – don’t you ?” sheer subterfuge genius on her behalf to keep from answering 🙂

  2. Many!!! Thanks for sharing this. I would love to go on Freddy’s trip to Scotland next year, but it sounds too vigorous for me. I have been to many of the places he is going, but without the knowledge that he imparts.

    Just had a wonderful week’s trip up the Maine coast and to a National Park on an island. Fall colors were spectacular and it was sunny 5/7 days. Ate lots of lobster-nothing like it.

    Now have somebody to drive with me most of the trip to North Carolina and will manage the last 4-5 hours on my own (with the 2 kitties!). We’ll leave Nov 18 or 19th, hoping there won’t be snow before then.

    Love all your writings,

    Wendy xo

    > Wendy Morgan > > > >

  3. I’ve too come to realise the gifts dementia has given our family and your right it’s those first stages that are the most painful. On the other hand when that glimmer of rebuff comes through (like Mrs P illustrated in the post above) it can be the best laugh I have all day!

  4. Brilliant! I never considered dimentia’s effects in this way, but it makes complete sense. In answer to your final question: tons. Most of our daily actions are based on unconscious thought. Triggers are born from an event

      • I’ll never forget seeing a program on TV about a soldier with PTSD. He’s a native American, and his shaman did a soul retrieval ceremony with him. It was hugely healing for the soldier. The work I do using hypnosis is also basically soul retrieval work. Huge healing in each session. Much, much more powerful than talk therapy.

      • Must confess, I don’t know very much about soul retrieval. It always seems a strange idea to me, as I can’t see how the soul would get lost, but I’ve heard great things about it.

      • The way I’ve seen it, a little bit of myself got so traumatized at some point along the way, that it essentially became stuck in time. A belief was created, such as “I made this bad thing happen, therefore I’m bad.” I’ve followed threads to the initiation of an uncomfortable feeling and discovered a subconscious program that was running. As I see the scenario that plays out, I can see my child mind, the one just trying to survive, and how it has created assumptions like taking blame and responsibility for things that aren’t hers. I can completely shift the energy, releasing the “trapped” pain, simply by viewing the scenario with my adult wisdom, gleaning things such as “when that adult yelled at me for the umpteenth time, it wasn’t anything I did wrong, they had a mental illness and we’re just plain wonky.” Then the belief that I am bad 100% shifts and leaves. That bit of me that was stuck in time is now happy and radiant. Love flows back in. What felt like it was in the dark and cut off from my real essence of love is returned to light and joy. I literally feel lighter, emotionally and spiritually, and walk with a spring in my step.

        One time, I literally saw young bits of myself come out of darkness of a cave and then out of closets. They had been scared, staying in darkness until the adult me found them and let them know it was safe to come out. The subconscious beliefs that were created are what I now know are our shadow beliefs or shadow selves. I’ve been able to bring them out of darkness and literally back into light. So, the soul isn’t really ever gone; we block it off, become separated from it, create a belief that no longer serves us. And we can transmute this in an instant.

  5. Very nice post, Jan. Thanks for sharing. I took care of my Mom too once she became demented and my step father passes away. Yes, it is extremely hard to adapt to at first. By the end, I realized it was a blessing. She was not burdened with a lifetime of memories when she died. She became something like a little child in the end. Happy for the most part, living in the moment. I hope I will be so lucky when my time comes. -Don

    • Thank you Don. Yes, you’re right – by the end they live in a little bubble without time, space or responsibilities to get in the way. Mum always seemed to be in quite a good place by then.

  6. Wonderful insights. It is hard to say whether it was purely just the emotional trigger, or part of the disease. I know when I think I know something, and someone asks me in a way that seems like maybe I didn’t know…it casts a huge doubt. Then when I encounter the thing, I am never again sure if I know. I will wrestle with that for a while, and for a while I will win the battle, but eventually it will be too hard to win and the skill will be lost. Thanks for caring for your mom. 🙂

    • I can just about imagine how difficult that must be, Faith. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences of dementia on your blog. I find your courage and optimism truly inspiring.

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