The Gifts of Dementia and Alzheimer's
Having a parent with dementia is not unusual, and will become even more common as the senior population grows. Dementia is an umbrella in which Alzheimer’s is the most common type. I often use them interchangeably, though there are some differences. Dementia typically occurs in those over the age of 60 and the incidences have been doubling every 5 years. It is estimated that 25-50% of 85+ will show some signs of dementia, that means that majority of us will be have someone in our life with dementia.
My mom is 80 and has dementia. She probably had signs since she was 60, but over the past 5 years, it has progressed relatively quickly. My story with my mother is probably not unique. I lived out of state, but my siblings had both lived close to my parents, and they had helped my parents out when needed. When my mom started showing clear signs of dementia, we were all a little bit in denial about it, busy with our own lives, raising our families, thinking she was just being a little difficult. She would say it was “just old age” and all her friends had the same issue. I am part of the sandwich generation, as were both my brother and sister. I was telling my mom and my son to eat their vegetables, get more exercise and take their medicine and both of them were not listening to me. I was raising a teenager, me turning 50 in the year he was 12. Having recently relocated to Texas to a high-pressure job, I was feeling buried with the normal single working parent pressures. My dad continued to express concern about the dementia but my mother refused to talk to the doctor about it and got really angry if anyone brought it up. I once flew to Florida for the weekend so I could get my mom to the doctor. They requested I send a letter explaining the symptoms, since I was not a medical POA. The week before I went to Florida, I faxed a three-page letter outlining her symptoms that my dad saw and my siblings and I saw. When I got to the doctor with her, he actually told her that I had sent a letter saying she was losing her memory. And she walked out of another doctor’s office angry and undiagnosed. She didn’t talk to me for months.
Six months after the doctor visit, my sister and dad passed away, six months apart, it became apparent that it was more of an issue than we imagined. Also, studies show that stress, whether emotional or physical, advances the disease and losing two family members is the ultimate stressor. I moved back to Ohio, for a number of reasons, including being there for my mom. The next few years, there has been significant decline; we had moved her to an independent living apartment, then to an assisted living apartment and then to a memory care unit. She still recognizes people who are important to her and has her dry sense of humor. There have been a lot of not so great things, cancer, frequent ER trips, which led to hospital stays, but the process has not been without gifts. She is excited to see me most days, in a way she hasn’t been since I was a child. My son, my nieces and nephews get to experience that excitement, also, even though it is hard to see their Nana declining. There is a part of her that is happier, she doesn’t worry or hold grudges, and she often thinks she just saw people she has lost, her parents, her husband, or her daughter, earlier in the day. And she has new loved ones, the staff that lovingly cares for her. I feel guilty when I leave, but know she has people that care for her and she will forget that she is sad in a short time. As opposed to the 20 years she was mad at me when I moved away.
I know having a parent with dementia makes me more concerned with every memory lapse that I have. Though there is a genetic component to dementia, they are finding that nutrition plays a big factor in your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. Dr. Daniel Amen has written several books about brain health and has done studies where a patients have a brain scan and is showing brain deterioration, then he has his patient change their diet and add regular exercise, and the scan after the diet and exercise change, actual show damage reversal. His research is fascinating.
Most of us will have a person in our life with dementia, and may even be affected with it ourselves. Some of your experiences will mirror mine and some will be vastly different. I think the research on nutrition and exercise in relation to Alzheimer’s is hopeful. I continue to love and appreciate my mom, the moments we have together in a way that I never have before.