Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Memory Loss Beyond Dementia's Victim


Dementia has claimed yet another life that I have known.

A long-time family friend passed into Eternity this morning at a local hospital after suffering a fall on Saturday.  She was the mother of six, a grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, and the sister of another lady who's struggling with dementia.  Their mother died from it years ago.

Technically, our friend who died this morning likely did so from complications of her fall.  Yet it's also likely that having dementia did nothing but destabilize her sense of balance.  Indeed, as dementia continues to corrupt its victims' brain, motor skills and balance can become casualties of one's deteriorating mental capacity.

This particular family friend didn't have dementia for as long as my Dad did.  I'm not sure she was on any of the medicines that can help minimize some of dementia's worst symptoms.  Compared with my Dad, this family friend was fairly docile during her illness, and was able to remain in her home.  She and her husband were blessed with the loving resources of a large family, although the strain on her husband's face whenever I saw him was distinct.

She and her husband attended my Dad's memorial service back in October, and while she looked gaunt, with the telltale dark and stony face of dementia, she seemed relatively functional.  Although she could no longer remember my name, she acted as though her brain was telling her she knew who I was, so she'd grin broadly and giggle nervously around me - and around anybody else she'd known for years but were now nameless to her.  At Dad's memorial service, there were a number of those friends.

Last summer was the last time she and her husband visited Mom and me at our home.  While her husband and Mom chatted about all sorts of things, she nodded her head, smiled, laughed, and heartily echoed her agreement whenever there was a lull in the conversation.  Nevertheless, it was uncomfortably obvious that she really didn't know what her husband and my Mom were talking about, even though their topics of discussion - church, families, nostalgia, and even (oddly enough) funeral homes - should have otherwise been within her realm of comprehension and contribution.

Finally, she jumped up and began to touch everything - EVERYTHING! - in the living room where we were.

Not that she necessarily wanted to look at anything, however.  She didn't inspect what she touched and picked up, like she was interested in what it was, or curious about how it was made; she seemed to simply have a compulsion to touch it.  So she moved quietly around the room, picking up curios, picture frames, candles, glass vases, pillows, and photo albums.  She didn't look at the pictures, or browse the albums; she simply moved them about just a bit.

At first, her embarrassed husband began to apologize for his wife's odd behavior, but Mom and I cut him off.  Although having to touch everything in sight wasn't one of the ways Dad's dementia exhibited itself, he'd been in a memory-care facility long enough for Mom and me to understand that some dementia patients are extraordinarily tactile.

And dementia patients can also possess surprising strength and agility, despite their frail appearances.  When our friend picked up some of our heavy glass vases, I tried to suppress little gasps of apprehension over whether her dubious grip could hold the deceptively weighty object, but our friend displayed a deceptive nimbleless of her own as she'd lift one object while setting down another.

Indeed, like many hallmarks of dementia, it can seem contradictory how a dementia patient's brain can focus on and process one function, yet otherwise completely fail at another function.

Along one wall of our living room, a grouping of over a dozen framed photos is displayed.  And wouldn't you know it, but our friend shuffled over there and picked up each one!  She didn't look at any of the photos, although Mom tried to tell her who was in each photo, since our friend would have otherwise known most of our family members.  No; she'd pick up each frame, and then set it down again - but not exactly where it had been.  Before she was finished, every frame had been raised, briefly held aloft, and then replaced askew.  It was actually somewhat comical to watch.

I remember that when they got ready to leave, her husband had to help her into their car, even though she was fully ambulatory.  She simply didn't seem to understand the mechanics of sitting in an automobile so a seatbelt can stretch across your chest, even though she'd spent her life driving.  She used to pilot a huge Ford station wagon - white, with that fake woody applique on its sides! - all over Texas.  But now...

After they left, I spent 15 minutes straightening everything she'd rearranged.  But I didn't care.  Considering all of the far more destructive ways dementia can make its victims act, our friend's tactile obsession was far preferable.  Nevertheless, we did hear from the family - and I'm sure you can imagine as well - that living with such a compulsive behavior pattern on a daily basis was extremely exhausting for them.

It's not that dementia patients with such an obsession go once around a room and touch everything.  They keep going around the same room, and throughout the house, touching and touching and re-touching and re-touching, often moving things from one place to another - and then back again.  You can understand how things might get lost; Dad re-arranged his desk drawers constantly, and was constantly misplacing things.  Few items may get broken in the process, surprisingly, but that's little comfort when your loved one starts accusing you of stealing what they've misplaced.

Dad developed an obsessive pattern of trying to "fix" our expensive grandfather clock, and now it neither keeps proper time nor chimes in sequence with the quarter-hour.  A family member of a fellow resident at Dad's memory-care place told me their family had come up with the idea of getting some junked appliances for their father to "fix" every afternoon in their garage, so he'd stop trying to "fix" the real, functional appliances in their home.

As for our family friend who passed away this morning, I wonder if her lifetime spent straightening and tidying-up after six kids and classrooms full of students contributed to her dementia-fueled compulsion for touching everything in sight.

Maybe, but...

My purpose in telling you these things about our family friend is to describe for you one of the many odd ways dementia can express itself within its victims.  The risk in doing so, however, is that you'll finish this essay with a lopsided impression of our family friend as a compulsive, fidgety, overly-tactile weirdo.  Oddly enough, none of these characteristics stand out in my memory of her as she was back before her dementia set in.

Yet that's one of the problems of dementia:  by the time a dementia patient passes away, it's become hard to remember the way they were, all those years ago, when they were in their right mind.  Recent, emotionally-laden memories of our loved ones as they've suffered through years of raw dementia are what's seared into our mournful minds.

Perhaps it's in this way that dementia victimizes more than just the patient; all of us who knew the patient can be deprived of the reality of the person who used to exist, before dementia took its toll.

"Gone, but not forgotten," as they say.  But in the case of dementia's victims, we really have to work at it.


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