Loving Alzheimer’s

Loving Alzheimer’s

 “Love is what it is,” my Mum told me when she had Alzheimer’s. But what did she mean by this simple yet profound statement? And what were the conditions that gave rise to her realisation?

It is only a few days since Valentines Day but already the red roses and many symbols of romantic love have gone, disappeared from view. So what kind of love is the love my Mum was talking about?

Many people with Alzheimer’s have the capacity to give and receive my Mum’s kind of love and 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. 

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) Memory and Ageing Centre analysed the functional MRA 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.

These findings have huge implications for all those involved with people with Alzheimer’s. If for example a carer feels love, the person with Alzheimer’s will sense this, feel it too, and express it. But because of their high level of sensitivity they will reflect what the carer is feeling, be that love or some other emotion. 

It is important to acknowledge too that although many Alzheimer’s suffers respond to love with love, there are those who don’t and continue to be aggressive towards their carers, despite being shown genuine loving care. 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 dementia 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 that I believe contribute to the expression of love. The part of the brain that filters and moderates thoughts and feelings for the outside world 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 expressed then it should be embraced wholeheartedly without embarrassment. Mutual feelings of love can lead to a beautiful symbiotic relationship.

Another factor that I believe is involved is the slowing down of brain activity which 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.

 Alzheimer’s Love:

Is not exclusive. It is inclusive and universal.

It is not transitory. It is lasting, 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

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