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.