Can you have a positive attitude towards losing your mind?

old lady2

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I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago about Positive Ageing.

I’m all for positive ageing. Positive anything, really (especially bank accounts).

Part of the discussion was around how you could make life much more meaningful for people with dementia by involving them in sensory experiences like music, sensory gardens and other things which don’t rely on your cognitive abilities.

sensory garden

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So, concluded the researcher/therapist, even people who don’t remember their own names can still experience ‘successful ageing’.

Ok, let’s redefine success. As living.

There’s a lot of bullshit talked in ‘helping’ circles.

That said, anyone who does have a relative with dementia might find these therapies interesting to read about, because (up to a point) dementia can be slowed and soothed.  As the brain falls gently away, a person can still find pleasure at last in the things that brought them pleasure at first – touch, warmth, security, rhythm, melody, fragrance.  When the present loses meaning, for a while the past becomes the present, so that a person who forgets the face of their grown son can see it again in their four year old grandson.

When your mind is active but your body is failing, then you are as much you as ever you were.  But when your mind is failing, dying piece by piece, who are you? Where are you? When are you, not?

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28 comments

  1. I think that Terry Pratchett is a good example of “positive ageing”; he says that he’ll write for as long as he is able to even if he sometimes forgets how to tie his shoelaces! I’ve met the man; he is engaging, funny and thoughtful.

    When I was a care assistant my residents loved interaction even if they could no longer speak. I would say that dementia is very much akin to autism, as sensory and tactile experiences help greatly in both circumstances.

    • I guess it is a bit like autism..Would you say in dementia that you gradually become less cerebral, more ‘basic’? You are literally losing your mind, that’s what the disease does – but the sensory bits are among the last to go, I believe.

      • Yes, I’d say that it’s almost as though you’re “degenerating” back into babyhood, but with behaviours more akin to autism. I had one resident who was 93 (and very sweet) who was convinced that she was seven years old a lot of the time and always woke up not knowing where she was. It’s very sad when that happens, especially since a dementia patient can feel his or her mind deteriorating.

      • I’d like to know more about what it’s like from the outside. I really know very little about it except what colleagues have told me, because I sort of work in the field of ‘old people’.

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      • It depends on when you catch him; sometimes he’s happy to stop and chat, and other times he’ll snap at anybody who comes near him. It’s frustration talking, and is the nature of the disease. Imagine having a mind and imagination as big as his and being aware that it’s all slipping away from you. Heartbreaking and horrible 😦

      • Yes, it’d be incredibly depressing and frustrating. It’s hard for people. My mum and dad never got it, luckily for them they died first. There’s no cure but apparently it can be prevented. In some cases.

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  2. What you described scares the hell out of me more than anything (except drowning).
    Not for the losing of my mind, but for the flashes in the middle where I become aware I’m losing my mind.
    I”ll stick with dying from doing something stupid, thanks.

  3. I’m all for positive, like you especially with bank accounts. As a 60+ I consider that I am aging gracefully; I still have all my faculties and haemorrhoids, although I do use a walking stick. If hobbling along can be considered graceful, then I’m doing okay. Should I make it to my dotage in this manner, I’ll be grateful. For me the frightening thing about dementia would be forgetting where I put my beer, that would really put a wrench in the works.

    AV

    • That’s funny. Yes, I think if you ever get dementia, you should hire a beer finder to eliminate that worry. I suppose the good thing about dementia might be that you forget all those things that annoyed and saddened you in your adult life.

  4. My father has some; not much. He is going to be 91 in May.

    He will say something out of the blue about something he did as a child in the middle of a conversation that has nothing to do with what he just said. It embarrasses him later on when he realizes he pictured himself at Christmas dinner on the farm where he grew up, when he was sitting with Don and 10 other strangers at our Christmas dinner last year. He’s still “with it”. I’m assuming he still feels like him; but he knows “things” are slipping. What a terrible fate. Yuck.

    • It must be terrible if you realise it. And if you value your ability to fully use your mind, if you want to be a participating member of your social group. It must be so sad for you to watch. Looked at another way, you could perhaps see it as a regression – nobody minded when your dad was two and didn’t know much, but if he reverts, he’s effectively lost 88 years. It’s a sobering thought.

      • It’s quite tricky to deal with when one is just beginning the dementia. Sometimes my brother and I get a little snippy with him because we’re not used to him having dementia. It’s such a screw to see someone have this after living for so long. I pray that his mind doesn’t go before he does. Aging is sometimes such an insult!

      • An insult, exactly! There are a range of things, apparently, that he can do to slow the dementia down. If you haven’t already looked into them, you should – I could probably find some references if that’s any help.

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      • Very sweet of you, Rose. The good news is he is incredibly healthy. He takes excellent care of himself; eats the right things, the right amount, hardly has a drink (except on occasion), gets enough sleep, participates in activities once in awhile at his (very nice) “home”; swims 3 times a week, exercises; so I don’t think there’s much more than we can hope for with him. His decline has been gradual, and we have had to be sort of, erm, strict with him to stay with his big-boy pants on. I’m not sure that’s right. He sometimes tries to act helpless and he reacts better when Jeff and I sort of force him to socialize and organize himself. No worries, we are very loving with him. Keeping his hearing aid in has been a battle. He sometimes answers questions that he THINKS people ask. It usually shocks people. ANYHOO, I REALLY feel for people who are involved with this whole thing. I mean, the next step is dying … There’s no “good” in this. I think about dad every day, and think how scary and lonely it must be to lose [himself].

      • No, I’m sure you’re right. No matter how we dress it up, dying is a very unpleasant part of life – I’ve seen two deaths (not much, I know) and neither of them were at all pleasant. The best you can say about it is that it could have been worse.

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  5. I have seen two cases of Huntington’s Chorea- bodies failing while their minds were aware of it, terrible. In today’s world there is also the awareness that care for anyone costs money, and this adds an extra layer of negativity to any such debate.

    • That’s true. You apparently cost more in the last year of life than in the preceding fifty. Or something like that. And for what? Ageing is really a bigger challenge than just about anything else we ever face. It’s so full of scary things that could happen to one.

  6. I do not like the terms ‘successful’ ageing, ‘positive’ ageing. Do we have to gage everything in the competitive realm of success and failure? positive and negative ? Yes the idea of dementia is scary. All we can do for demented people is learn what gives them pleasure, what makes them feel, explore their individual and diverse needs. And this requires resources. We ought to spend money on providing them with the best buildings and environment and well paid or family support carers who understand them.

    • I don’t like successful ageing – positive I don’t mind too much. Successful ageing suggests there’s unsuccessful ageing – elderly losers. Positive – well I guess that’s just trying to make the best of a bad business. I agree with what you say about dementia, too.

    • I think they are too. The problem with using uplifting words to describe what’s sometimes a downheartening experience is that you at times get a reality gap.

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  7. Rose,

    This post touched me a bit, I’ve had to live through 2 of my relatives slowing losing their marbles due to the slow keep of dementia, perhaps I will too if it is in the genes as some suggest. While my mum is in the early stages, my gran was very much in the final stages before she passed away. She shuffled in and out of reality, spent most of her time living out her childhood before she died. Really broke me up when she couldn’t remember who I was, but it was worse for my mum when she couldn’t remember her either.

    I have some tolerance for these ‘therapies’, but you know what used to make my gran the happiest? Just spending time with her, ignoring her stuff ups, humouring her, even if it was sometimes really hard to keep smiling through. In some ways it was great for her, every time I visited her, I could remind her of things, explain photos, she used to love the simplest of pleasures.

    I can’t however say that her life was all great near the end, she was often difficult, confused, even down right nasty and rude, but she was my gran. And I am just beginning the same journey with mum, although she is 89 now and doing a lot better than mum in most ways.

    It is difficult for those with dementia, but I think I owe it to my mum to stick with her through it.

    Capt. Savage

    • It is very difficult for people with dementia and their families, yes (even worse if you have no family, I imagine). But as I mentioned to Mel, there is stuff you can do, if the person involved is prepared to do it. I happened to go to a meeting on dementia policy today and as you’d expect it was full of people who have to do with the demented. Anyway the consensus was that if you can identify the very early signs of ‘cognitive decline’ – which might begin at 40ish or so – you can prevent or at least delay the onset/severity of the disease. Lifestyle factors have a lot to do with dementia – particularly heart health, I believe. So G, HURRY ALONG TO YOUR GP and ASK!! And if that GP doesn’t know, look for another one – awareness of preventative measures is apparently a bit rare among GPs.

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