Time can stop when memories are lost for a person with Alzheimer’s disease. At certain stages, the brain loses its recent (short-term) memories. The brain — and therefore, the present — is in the past for those with memory loss. Current thoughts are drawn to distant memories. Familiar people and places from long ago are at the forefront of the mind, even though those people may no longer be alive and those places have most likely changed. Because long-term memories can be intact for most Alzheimer’s patients, they often think they are much younger than they are chronologically. For example, it is not unusual for a medical professional to ask the patient what year it is during an exam. The patient’s answer may often reflect a time 20 to 30 years earlier. This question establishes his or her orientation to time. The absence of this orientation is a classic sign of memory issues and could indicate Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
Memories from long ago can be triggered while driving through a neighborhood — searching for an old friend’s home can become an obsession. Houses and streets may look different; unrecognizable. This can be upsetting and puts pressure on family members to explain why visual expectations do not match the individual’s recollection. Avoiding the neighborhood is one idea; however, conversations can take a difficult turn when it comes to people who have passed or moved away. Here are some tips to create reassurance when these lapses in memories occur:
• Find a quiet and calm environment, and sit with the individual.
• Speak with compassion. The person may be afraid and appear overwhelmed.
• Understand the timeframe this person is in. This is the reality he or she has chosen to remember.
• Talking about this timeframe will help him or her feel safe.
• Use photos to help them realize that time has passed. Suggest a correction, but do not scold with comments such as “Oh, we moved out of that house over 20 years ago!”
• Offer distractions to encourage his or her brain to move to another topic.
• Be patient and understanding; these memories will come up repeatedly.
Loss of memory also takes away relationships that may have been important. Family and friends need to understand that being forgotten should not be taken personally. Relationships with loved ones who suffer from dementia should not be judged by how well that person can remember the past. Instead, the focus should be on maintaining a personal and heartfelt connection in the present. Try some of t these ideas to foster the memories that remain intact:
• Play familiar music.
• Watch old films with familiar actors/actresses.
• Pull out old photos. You may even learn something new about the people in them!
• Enjoy memories as if you were there with them while you listen to their stories again and again.
We all spend time in the past, reliving cherished memories. The feelings of joy and accomplishment this creates should be valued for the difference they make in the present.
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