“Love is what it is.” Mum
“The stillness of deep love, I can’t find words to describe it.” “I love everyone.” “Love is what it is.” “Love never dies.”
These are just some of the things my mother told me about love when she had Alzheimer’s. As Valentine’s Day approaches I am aware of the gulf between my mother’s kind of love and the commercialization of love conveyed in the many trappings that surround us: larger and larger cards, bunches of identical red roses that have no perfume etc..
Reflecting on the love I discovered people with Alzheimer’s can experience, and reviewing some of the explanations for it, I find little has changed since I wrote about this last year. But it is important for us to keep love and our loved ones in our hearts so I am posting an edited version of last year’s blog.
Let’s start by asking, what were the conditions that enabled my mother to experience such deep love? It was not only my mother who experienced this, it has been found that many people with Alzheimer’s have the capacity to give and receive love. Even more surprisingly this happens when major functions, such as short-term memory and vocabulary, have significantly decreased. So what is happening? Neuroscientists may be able to shed some light on this.
Professor Oliver Turnbull at The Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University, UK, has researched emotional-based learning in Alzheimer’s. He found that emotional memory continues independently, even when other kinds of memory are decreasing. Not only that, people with Alzheimer’s continue to learn emotionally right to the end. This means new, loving relationships can develop even when everything else seems to have been lost enabling life-long wounds to be healed.
Other research in neuroscience discovered the important role of empathy in Alzheimer’s. When researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) Memory and Ageing Centre analysed the functional MRI scans of people with Alzheimer’s they found that as the part of the brain that is involved in cognitive processing decreases in activity, another part of the brain, the one that processes feelings of empathy, becomes more active. As a result, people with Alzheimer’s become very sensitive to nuances of facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures etc. Not only that, they mimic what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. This is called, ‘emotional contagion’. Further more, the same researchers found that as the disease progresses, feelings of empathy actually increase.
What has this to do with love? Well these findings have huge implications for all those involved with people with Alzheimer’s. If for example we feel love towards the person with Alzheimer’s, he or she will sense this, feel it too, and express it back to us. But because of their high level of sensitivity they will reflect back to us exactly what they are feeling, be that love or some other emotion.
It is important to acknowledge that although many Alzheimer’s suffers respond to love with love, some don’t and continue to be aggressive towards those who care lovingly for them. It is not fully understood why this happens but it may be that they are suffering not from Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, but from another kind of dementia that is affecting a different part of their brain. There are over 100 different kinds of dementias and it could be argued that there are as many kinds as there are sufferers as everyone has an individual pattern of neurological degeneration.
There are other factors at work in late-stage Alzheimer’s. The part of the brain that filters and moderates thoughts and feelings, prior to expressing them verbally, ceases to function properly. When this happens people with Alzheimer’s say exactly what they are thinking and feeling. This lack of inhibition can be quite disconcerting and can result in the expression of negative as well as positive thoughts. But if love is being experienced and expressed to us then we should embrace it wholeheartedly without reservations or embarrassment. Mutual feelings of love can lead to beautiful symbiotic relationships.
Another factor that I believe is involved is the slowing down of brain activity. This results in the person focusing only on what is happening in the moment, without the distraction of thoughts from the past or thoughts about the future. Being totally in the ‘now’ means attention is focused on what ever is present. If this is love, then love is all there is.
Is not exclusive. It is inclusive and universal.
It is not transitory. It is enduring and eternal.
It is not something. It is everything.
“Love is what it is.” Mum.
Looking forward to the next stage of our journey together.
Maggie La Tourelle
Author of, The Gift of Alzheimer’s – New Insights into the Potential of Alzheimer’s and its Care.