Coping Creatively With Dementia
A couple of years ago, I was hanging out with my mother in her bedroom when she held up a small waste basket and started shaking it at me.
"This is money!" she exclaimed.
"How much money is it worth?" I teased her. "Can I have some?"
We both started giggling. Only it wasn't that funny. Little did I know that parts of my mom's speech were slipping away, along with her memory. I had been visiting my parents for the last several years on a monthly basis, cooking and doing light caregiving. However, when my father became critically ill with late-onset Parkinson's disease, my brother and I had to suddenly become more hands-on. My mother, in particular, started treating my father weirdly. Instead of being concerned, all of a sudden she acted as if his getting ill was his own fault. She was in deep denial and didn't understand that he had a chronic illness.
"Sick people don't eat," she observed, ignoring the fact that, although Dad was eating, he was continuing to lose weight.
Life finally hit the fan on Thanksgiving of that year. My mom's 80-year-old cousin offered to come and cook the family dinner. She brought her 45-year-old son, along with his pet chihuahua, Cuddie, a therapy dog.
Everything was going well at first—in the traditional holiday fashion, the women did the food prep and the men watched sports on television. Then Mom started asking me in hushed tones, "Who is that woman? And what is that little boy and dog doing here?" It was the first time we realized that she was really slipping. Throughout the day she began calling me her sister swapping the names of her husband of 53 years and her son, my brother.
Still, she was helping out in the kitchen, enjoying her "stories" on daytime television with the girls. She knew who she was and where she lived. During the holiday dinner, she said, out of the blue, "Something is wrong in my house!" Then she would hold her hands over ears, elbows on the table, as if trying to keep her brains inside her head. After dinner, we'd play music and she'd do a little jig or jut out a hip, cracking everyone up. Always my dad's dance partner, it was the first time I'd seen her dance alone and she seemed to enjoy the freedom of it.
A month later on Christmas Day, Mom began to exhibit severe behavioral aggression, throwing furniture and screaming constantly. I called her doctor for help but he wasn't available. An on-call physician prescribed an antidepressant and after two pills she passed out. Afraid we had overdosed her, we called 911. An ambulance arrived and several paramedics crowded into the house.
My 81-year-old mother woke up briefly, looked up at one of them, a big strong handsome guy, and said, "I know you, you're cute." Flirting!
The paramedics transferred her to the ER where she was diagnosed with vascular dementia, similar to mid-stage, late-onset Alzheimer's. A couple of hours later she was back to herself, evaluated and medicated by a young ER doctor who seemed eager to have a case outside of his wheelhouse, consulting other physicians in order to ensure my mother was given the proper protocol.
We returned home, postponing Christmas until the next day, and had a soothing, lovely, drama-free holiday, opening what were to be my dad's last presents to and from us. My brother and I began holistic therapies with my mother moving her into the guest bedroom so my dad could rest, playing soothing music with the lights turned down low. When she had her next calm, coherent moment, she picked up another waste basket and pointed to it, pulling out trash.
"Funny food!" she exclaimed.
"You're not going to eat that are you?" I asked.
She threw back her head and cackled.
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Six weeks later, my dad went into intensive care. When he passed away after two weeks on life support, she was too distraught to attend his funeral. She began to wail and didn't stop for another year.
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The Year of Funny
What has gotten me through this brutal period is, perhaps unsurprisingly, laughter. There are numerous support groups and forums out there to help caregivers and loved ones cope with life changes and transitions. Although I've had to cope with my own personal dark times, under these circumstances I learned the real value and importance of finding a sense of humor as it relates to a loved one. The first of my mother's year with dementia forced me to dig deep into my funny bone and pull out the healing tones of laughter. Here's what I've learned:
1. Finding The Funny
"Black humor" has its place. There is no more healing activity than laughing your butt off in the face of extreme adversity. Find the funny, wherever you can, and play that record over and over again. As long as the person it is intended for has a sense of humor, they may very well appreciate you lightening up their difficult moments in life.
2. Play Music
My mother responds well to the music she loved in her past, including country and blues. But I wanted something more interactive that we could do together so I bought her a pink toy harmonica. In her right mind, she would have thought I was crazy, but now I get her to "jam" and we record her singing and blowing her harp to music she remembers. She doesn't get much sound out of it but it makes her howl with laughter so it's totally worth it.
3. Be a Mirror For Your Loved One
As her condition worsens, my mother babbles throughout the day, making no sense. However, she sundowns in the afternoon/evenings and her version of it is that she actually gains back some of her clarity. So during the day I answer all her "questions" and try to have a conversation with her, sometimes non-stop for hours. Then, when afternoon hits, she'll turn to me and say,
"How are you doing?" She'll even remember my name.
"I'm doing fine, how are YOU doing Mama?" I respond.
"Oh, I'm doing better today, thank you."
"Well, you look beautiful," I say.
She smiles, "You're pretty too." We laugh.
4. Keep Conversations Short and Sweet
I've lived 500 miles from my family for almost 30 years so over the course of our lives I would visit on holidays and call every couple of weeks and my mother and I would spend long hours chatting on the phone. Now when I call, I know I'm not going to get back as much as I give so I've had to lower my expectations in terms of how much we can really communicate. These days it's usually short conversation where I tell her the next time I'm visiting and how I love her. She responds in short bursts, "Yes. No. Ok."
One day I mentioned I was arranging to have a 'four-legged friend' visit her, meaning a therapy dog.
She asked, right on cue, "Who do you know with four legs?" She was delighted with her joke! It was a small glimpse into my mother's true personality. And I was grateful.
No matter how much sense my Mom does or doesn't make, she's very appreciative of my presence and she thanks me for every visit I make. I don't have to talk or try to make any sense—in fact, that just makes things worse. Instead, I sit quietly next to her and let her try to communicate the best she can.
6. Accept & Hope
Finally, acceptance of the "new normal" is vital—denying the circumstances doesn't help. My mom knows something is not right and that enables us to cope. In the meantime, we hope for a bright young scientist who uncovers the origins of this devastating illness and is inspired by the epidemic to find a cure.
And, while we're waiting, we laugh.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Nicole Ross
Nicole Ross (author) from Santa Monica on July 05, 2018:
dredcuan I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother. How awesome that you were able to care for her. It is hard, but I feel, if you had a good relationship, it's a privilege. Thank you for your comment. I'm looking forward to reading your articles.
Travel Chef from Manila on June 28, 2018:
My grandmother died two years ago. She was battling with Alzheimer's disease for quite a long time already when she passed away. It wasn't easy to take care of her as she can no longer recall everything in the past. I remembered how she considered me as her friend and not as her grandchild.
But I agree with you, the easiest and funniest way to take care of a person with Alzheimer's is to go along with her/his thoughts. Since these people at times act just like kids. So it is better to simply play around with them and have fun.