The Dementia Connection

Creating Joy & Meaning for the Dementia Patient by Ronda Parsons


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Even in Winter Nature’s Beauty is Found

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.Thomas Merton:

A day doesn’t have to be sunny and warm to be filled with delight and surprise. Even in the dead of winter, when drifts of snow cover the ground, my mother-in-law, Nan and I would still enjoy the beauty of nature. Since we couldn’t go outdoors, we would sit at the window and admire the bare trees whose branches were covered with snow and dripping icicles. We watched birds that visited the feeders outside our window and watched sunshine reflecting off the icy top of snow banks. We spoke of winter things and how lucky we were to inside where it was warm and cozy.

Don’t forget to share the beauty of nature with your loved one even when it is cold outside. Why not spend the winter months dreaming of the promise of spring by forcing flowers into bloom? I find that amaryllis and narcissus work the best. Place the bulbs shoulder to shoulder in shallow bowls and cover them with small stones. Next, add water and before long you will have a lovely display. Sometimes of the blooms become top heavy, use a ribbon to tie them to branches that you find in your yard. When they are done blooming, I plant them in my garden beds. Tulips and hyacinths can also be forced to flower, but first have to be tricked into thinking that they have experienced an entire winter season. I do this by placing them in my garage refrigerator for about two months.

In the late winter months, my mailbox is inundated with glossy seed catalogs. Nothing cures the winter blues better than leafing through pages filled with heirloom vegetables and annual flowers. Together Nan and I would sit and choose our favorite flowers and plan where we would plant them in just a few short months. Then three weeks before the final frost we begin our garden in in small pots that I make from newspaper that we placed on her windowsill. Winter is a time for enjoying nature’s quiet beauty as it slumbers and to look toward the spring that is just around the corner. Why not share this with your loved one?


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Nature

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I find it hard to imagine a life without access to the magnificence of nature. In today’s technological world, it is easy to forget that we are part of her extended family, a distant cousin to all of her creations. We forget that we are living beings who require sunshine and fresh air in order to thrive. We forget that we are part of the continuum that gazes down upon us in the night sky. We forget that we too are stardust.

For many years the scientific community has recognized the potential restorative power that nature can have in our lives. Evidence exists that our brain waves actually change when we are surrounded by vegetation and nature. Over thirty years ago scientist Roger S. Ulrich became the first scientist to utilize an electroencephalograph (EEG) to monitor the brain wave activity in adults as they viewed photos of nature and then photos of urban cityscapes. Results indicated that when we view lush scenes of nature, we have higher alpha wave activity in our brains, which results in a relaxed state of being and lower anxiety levels. It is important to keep in mind that participants in these studies were only looking at photos. Just imagine the calming effects that transpire when we are physically present and witnessing nature firsthand.

This news is was not too surprising, since mankind has recognized this truth for thousands of years. Since the earliest days in Chine, Persia, and Greece, we have understood that contact with nature reduces stress and promotes well-being. I think that most of us know this instinctively. So why do our modern healthcare institutions neglect this ancient understanding when constructing facilities? Why is our fundamental need to commune with nature not considered when creating care plans for the sick, elderly, and cognitively impaired? I may not know the answers to these questions, but I do know that we cannot rely on facilities or institutions to connect our loved ones to the healing power of nature.

Physical and spiritual renewal cannot occur when we are closed up in a building with little natural light or fresh air. No, we need opportunities to feel the softness of grass under our feet or to touch the smooth bark of a crepe myrtle. I pity the person who never feels the soft warmth of sunshine on their face or smells the bright green fragrance of spring. No amount of environmental air filters or aerosol sprays can replace the smell of trees swaying in the wind on a soft summer’s afternoon.

As I have told you before, in my early days as a caregiver my main focus was that Nan’s daily physical needs were being met and that her environment was safe and secure. I am certain that today most of your energy is being spent in the same way. However, as time went on and I came to know other patients and observe their behavior, I soon realized that these issues are just baseline concerns. Yes, they are paramount to the life of the patient, but they are just the beginning, the foundation which enables them to experience the fullness of life. I came to realize that Nan needed more than just food, water, sleep and help with rudimentary hygiene. She needed to engage with elements that would make her life rich and meaningful.

No life is one dimensional. In order to be fulfilled and find happiness each of us must have a multitude of experiences that reinforce our well-being. We must feel alive and a part of the world around us. We must experience simple joys like crisp autumn days spent under bright blue skies. Nature has the power to infuse our lives with the innate sense of peace. And this does not change as we grow older or become impaired. Just because they have limitations does not mean that the positive influence of nature cannot bring incredible happiness into the lives of our loved ones. Nature can elevate them from a state of merely existing into the soaring heights of feeling completely alive.

 


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I’d love to meet you in Charlottesville!

This year’s VA Festival of the Book will take place from March 16-20.

I will be participating in the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA,            March 16 – 20, 2016.

I will be participating in the “Caring for the Caregivers” panel on March 16th at 4 pm at the JMRL Central Library in Charlottesville.

I will also be signing books and meeting the public at the Book Fair, Saturday, March 19th, from 9am to 4pm in the atrium of the Charlottesville Omni Hotel.


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What is a memory?

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious | Anonymous ART of Revolution:

There is an interesting memory phenomenon that I witnessed not only in Nan, but also in other dementia patients.  Over time I began to see a correlation between how often I came to see Nan and her tendency to act out in a negative manner.  The more often I came, the less likely she was to be anxious and distressed.  It took some time for me to notice the pattern and to link these two events together. This is especially interesting since more often than not, she completely forgets my visit before I reach my care in the parking lot.  So I am not saying that she remembers the actual details of our time together, but on some deeper level she seems to understand that someone loves and cares for her. It is as if a part of her knows that I have been to see her and this deeper connection seems to sustain her while I am away.

Research shows that Nan is not along in this phenomenon.  Experts have witnessed this also. According to research “endorphins released during a pleasant experience have a salutary effect on the person with dementia even after the experience is forgotten.” (Rebecca Mead, “The Sense of an Ending,” The New Yorker, 2013.)

After watching Nan for many years, I know with certainty that her understanding of the world around her is far greater than she is able to consciously recall or verbally communicate.  It is as if her memory has been divided into two sections. The side of her mind that rationalizes and problem solves is devoured by the ravages of the disease. it is worldly and temporal,, directly affecting her ability to reason and problem solve. But then there is another side that relates to feelings of her heart. Although affected, it still seems able to respond to and retain loving experiences. For example, the more often I visit, the less likely she is to have aggressive emotional outbursts. She tends to be calmer, less agitated, and more cooperative. I don’t know if it is conscious or intuitive, but I am absolutely certain that she know on some level when I have been to see her and when I have not.

I am a realist. I know that Nan no longer can recount the details of our conversations or what time I said I’d return. But all the same, I know that my daily visits are not in vain.  For when I have  been absent for just one day, she clearly makes her feelings known. You would be amazed to seen how a woman, who rarely speaks and on most days does not know her last name, will become angry with me because I was not at lunch on the previous day.

If you think that this is completely farfetched, observe your loved one after you have been absent for a day or two. Although they may not be aggressively punitive, I bet that if you pay attention you will see a change in their attitude toward you. Be thankful and take this as a sign of hope. After all, it proves what you and I have known all along – that they are still in there.

I truly believe that the spirit of every interaction, every smile, every loving comment, and every joy-filled instant, stays with Nan deep inside her spirit. Consequently, I do not discount any positive interaction that she and I have. I believe in the encouraging impact of regular loving contact.

Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, most of your progress will not be obvious. Most of the time, it will be invisible. For you see, you can never know what is remembered deep within your loved one’s heart. Just because you cannot guarantee that they will remember that they are loved, love them anyway. For, if you count your successes by visible affirmations you will surely be disappointed.

No, your rewards will be paid to you in the best currency of all, in the knowledge that you and your loved one have experienced tiny pleasures that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Sometimes these pleasures will seem to small that you wonder if they were worth your bother. Oh, but they were. Begin collecting them today. Pick them up joy-by-joy, pebble-by-pebble, until there are no stones of happiness left on the beach to be wasted and washed back into the sea.


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Virginia Festival of the Book

I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to participate in the

Virginia Festival of the Book which will take place

March 16 through 20 at various venues in Charlottesville, VA.

I will be meeting the public and signing copies of my book Creating Joy & Meaning for the Dementia Patient, Saturday, March 19th, from 9am to 4pm at the Book Fair held in the atrium of the Charlottesville Omni Hotel.

I will also be participating in a panel discussion during the course of the festival. I will announce the date, time, and place in the upcoming weeks.


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There Are Always Reasons To Be Grateful

GRATEFUL.:

There is an old saying that I have learned to live by. “Just control the controllables.” I realize that I cannot change the inevitability of my mother-in-law’s decline through the stages of dementia. Despite my innumerable efforts, I always return to the realization that I can only control small moments within the confines of her ever-shrinking world. No heroic act or incredible epiphany will propel Nan back in time to who she once was. At the end of the day, as with most life experiences, all I can control is my attitude.

I am the filter through which Nan sees the world. My moods and behaviors influence how she interprets everything in her life. If I strive to be kind, she will know that she is loved. If I appear strong and in control, she will know she is safe. If I choose to be positive, I will show her there is hope.

Admittedly, at first it was difficult to maintain a positive outlook. I worked hard to remain optimistic, but sometimes her unstable behavior was too much to bear and a kind of helpless depression would overtake me. Those were hard days that brimmed with anger and resentment, and all I could do was walk away and begin again later.

No matter how hard you try, no positive approach leads you in a straight line. Instead, it ebbs and flows as the circumstances of dementia change. During these difficult times, you must take a breath and value all that you have achieved up until this point. Don’t compare your loved one’s behavior against how they behaved yesterday, or how you hope that they will conduct themselves tomorrow. Instead, try to remain calm and give yourself credit for all the positive changes that you have been able to facilitate. Remember, this situation is never solved and its future will always remain uncertain.

Typically when I am feeling especially negative, it is because I have been focusing on the symptoms of the disease, rather than working to counterbalance its hold on Nan. It occurs when I am once again interpreting her actions in the context of who she used to be. It occurs when I forget that nothing in life is permanent and that we don’t have to understand everything that is happening around us in order to find happiness.

The reality is that there will be times when you feel sad and hopeless. There will be days when you want to walk away. This is when you have to mentally grab hold of yourself and deliberately change the thoughts that are running through your mind. Sometimes I redirect my thoughts by saying affirming statements out loud. Sometimes a good night’s sleep does the trick. Sometimes I go for a walk to clear my mind, go to dinner with a friend, or engage in an activity that I enjoy. I give myself permission to rest physically and emotionally. I remind myself that there is an entire universe outside the world of dementia.

Over time if you decide to remain positive it will become a habit. Yes, I said decide. For even with a diagnosis as horrific as dementia there are truths worth celebrating. And once I decided to open my eyes to all that remains possible, I began to see a multitude of tiny miracles swirling around Nan. I have witnessed more spontaneous demonstrations of kindness, understanding, and spirit-filled behavior than I can count. I didn’t notice them at first. I had to learn to pay attention in order to see them. And to think that they were there all along, hiding behind the distractions of my daily life, just waiting to be detected and appreciated. Even in the advanced stages of her disease, there is so much to celebrate about Nan’s life…….and your loved one’s too.