This past week my sister-in-law lost her mother, though in many ways they lost her years ago. Her mother had Alzheimer’s disease, and she had long since lost those aspects of her personality that made her who she was.
Alzheimer’s is a disease of the brain demonstrated by progressive signs of mental impairment. This disease takes over the mind, altering personality and character, as if exchanging the one known and loved with a total stranger. Day by day their loved one changes until there are only traces remaining of the person they once knew.
As the disease progresses, the brain is damaged more and more, moods, attitudes, memories and other facets of personality deteriorate until the person everyone knew is gone.
In the beginning, it is usually memory problems that are recognized. Forgetting important dates, numbered things like addresses and phone numbers. Maybe the person recognizes faces, but forgets names. And maybe they go somewhere like a store and can’t remember why they were there.
These initial episodes are devastating, for the afflicted person knows something is wrong, but are unable to make sense of any of it. Forgetfulness or memory loss is usually the first sign, and the reason people seek medical assistance.
We are defined by our specific personal experiences. Everything we do is built on what went on before, our occupation, hobbies, interests and relationships. Imagine not being able to recall the details of your life.
Memory is the ability to retain or recall thoughts, images, ideas, and experiences...anything previously learned. It can be divided into ‘working’ memory, and the more widely known, short term and long term memory, and is too complicated a subject for me to delve into.
Memory loss is only one symptom, one of a larger picture of cognitive decline that include reasoning and calculating, the inability to learn, difficulties with language and communication.
Other common symptoms include self-neglect, spatial disorientation, and behavioural and personality changes.
Loving, and living with, someone with Alzheimer’s is a sad and painful experience, one presenting with constant challenges. As a nurse I worked with many Alzheimer patients, and their families, and saw first-hand the toll it took on the family.
Not only is it a case of living with the unknown, as the course of the disease is unpredictable, it’s living with an ‘unknown’, as the afflicted person becomes a stranger, their behaviour confusing and often very unlike their former self.
I always thought that with the loss of memory, the loss of personality, the Alzheimer patient is beyond the kind of pain the family are constantly facing. They live in the moment, no past and no future, it’s the family who remember what was, what is no more and will never be again.
For my sister-in-law, with her mother’s passing, I hope she and the family are able to find some peace. They can mourn the loss of their mother, with a sense of finality, as they’ve mourned for years the loss of her spirit and the true essence of her being.
Remember the good times, and cherish the memories.