It is World Alzheimer’s Month and this provides us with a special time to remember our loved ones. But how could I forget my mother? What I experienced when she had Alzheimer’s changed my life in ways I could never have imagined and for which I am eternally grateful. She said, ‘I want you to remember the good times,’ so this is what I am going to do now.
Remembering Our Love
I remember it started when seeing my mother’s frailty, I felt compassion for her. Noticing this she said to me, ‘You love me’ followed by, ‘Love is what it is’. This came out of the blue, unfiltered and straight from her heart. It marked a new beginning in our previously, troubled relationship. My mother had suffered from mental instability and depression throughout her life and because of this she and I had struggled to get on. It was Alzheimer’s that enabled us to find a truly loving relationship and a positive way forward.
Empathy and ‘Emotional Contagion’
Did you know neuroscientists have discovered that in Alzheimer’s, as cognitive function declines, the part of the brain that enables empathy becomes increasingly active? This means people with Alzheimer’s are very sensitive to nuances of expression: our facial expressions, voice tones, gestures etc. They really tune into us. Not only that, they reflect back to us what they are sensing. This is called ‘emotional contagion’. These research findings have huge implications for family and carers. They highlight the important role we play in determining the emotions and mood in people with Alzheimer’s.
Remembering the Dancer
I remember when my mother and I were sitting silently overlooking the sea I asked her what she was thinking. She said, ’I see shapes’. ‘What shapes are you seeing’ I asked. Without saying a word she lifted her very stiff arms way above her head and started to sway from side to side, moving her body, arms and hands in a rhythmical motion. I knew instantly she was mirroring the motion of the waves and sea that lay before us. This was a magical moment that filled me with joy. It showed me that despite her severe disability and limitations the dancer in her was still alive. Movement was the language of her soul.
Remembering my Mother’s Two Worlds
Another time I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Its difficult living between two worlds’. Was this a hallucination? Was she delusional? Many would have dismissed her remark as the ramblings of the Alzheimer’s mind. But looking at it from my mother’s perspective her experience was real for her and for this reason I validated it. Little did I know then that this acknowledgement was going to be pivotal in determining what happened next and for the duration of our journey.
Altered States of Consciousness
As Alzheimer’s progresses, and more and more brain cells are destroyed, people loose their sense of self and their sense of linear time – past and future move into the present. When this happens people have intermittent altered states of consciousness in which they seem to slip into another world. I remember after telling me about her two worlds my mother said, ‘I have no worries, no fears, I am at peace’. She also assured me, ‘Death is nothing to be afraid of’. She would never have been able to say these things before she had Alzheimer’s as she had been in a permanent state of anxiety. So what she experienced in the ‘Other World’ was extremely beneficial to her and helped her to prepare for a ‘good death’. It was also very reassuring and comforting for me.
What my mother and I were experiencing was full of surprises and insights and recognising this she said, ‘You must tell others’. And so my work as her faithful scribe began: writing down many of the interesting and curious things she was saying and recording our conversations. Sometimes it wasn’t immediately obvious what she was trying to communicate as her loss of vocabulary forced her to substitute words and speak in metaphorical language. However having this record enabled me to reflect and search for the meaning embedded in what she had said. To my amazement what I found was often rich in meaning, illuminating and showed deep wisdom. It is wonderful to be able to read her words and listen to her voice now and through this, photos and other memorabilia I can remember her with great love and affection as if she were still here.
Remembering my mother has reminded me:
– Giving and receiving love is the most important thing we can do and we can initiate and facilitate this with people with Alzheimer’s, and of course with others we encounter in life.
– Irrespective of what has happened before it is never too late to heal the past.
– In the ‘Other World’ people are at peace, free from pain, worry and fear. When we validate this ‘Other World’ we can embrace it with them.
– When we are truly present and really listen to people with Alzheimer’s we discover that they can teach us.
These are just some of the Gifts of Alzheimer’s.
Maggie La Tourelle
Author of The Gift of Alzheimer’s – New Insights into the Potential of Alzheimer’s and it Care