Dementia – Robbery of New Memories


Everyone who knows anything at all about dementia or Alzheimers disease knows that it robs people of their memories. The given is that it breaks down mental function and retention. People with the disease lose names, their history, knowledge of their family, and even much of themselves. That’s not the only problem though. Dementia doesn’t only affect their memories and the past. It affects their loved ones and memories yet to be made.

I’m starting this blog on the way back to Atlanta from Seattle. My wife’s parents just celebrated their 50th anniversary. We were extremely fortunate to be able to gather as a family in one place and celebrate the occasion. None of our individual families are very big but we made a nice crowd when it all came together with ages from eight to nearly eighty. One of my wife’s cousins just graduated from college. Another was there with her boyfriend. The eight year old keeps growing up faster and faster. I met one of my father-in-law’s brothers for the first time and got to see his sister whom I’ve known for years. The anniversary celebration itself was especially nice. Overall, we had a great time in what was a rare situation.

50th anniversary
My in-laws’ 50th anniversary celebration was something special.
Doodle credit: Johnny Saba

Last December was the last time we were together and that was for my younger son’s bar mitzvah. That was another terrific time which felt a bit too short. In the blogs posts I wrote around that then, I made reference to my father’s legacy and what it meant to me. He wasn’t able to attend the weekend’s events and wouldn’t have been able to absorb what was happening if he were there. That framed many of the memories I made then and clearly they were much different than if he were with us and fully functioning .

Just last month was my parents’ 49th anniversary. Next year will be number fifty. I know that they’d love to have an event like the one my in-laws just enjoyed. That’s not going to happen, of course. My father’s overall health remains good but he’s not capable of grasping what the moment would mark. He would probably be able to identify maybe a quarter of the people who would be there. In all likelihood, he couldn’t even recognize himself in the slideshow I’d make.

50th anniversary
Then and now. They still look good and he can still rock a bowtie.
The normal passage of time and celebration of family and friends has been turned inside out by his condition. Now we need to mix the possible with what might have been. He’s not the only one who is incapable of making new memories. The rest of us have lost that ability as well.
Our last family outing. He wants more of these but doesn't remember them.
Our last family outing. He wants more of these but doesn’t remember them.
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5 thoughts on “Dementia – Robbery of New Memories

  1. I rarely comment here, but send them separately to Eric. Yesterday I saw “Inside Out”, an animated film about emotions and how they affect an 11 year-old girl when her family moves from MN to San Fran. She wants to be Happy, but Sadness gets in the way. Her Connections with her parents and friends back home break down. Anger sets in. And Memories start to fade away. She’s left feeling confused and isolated.

    It’s much the same with dementia on both sides of the family fence. One of Martin’s concerns is that he wants to be with his family. Not just be with us, be part of us. He’s clear on that. It’s not possible because of the kind of dementia he has, Frontotemporal Dementia. (See associationforfront0temporaldementia.org) It not only destroys memory but also control of emotions, the ability to process new information, and decision making. Loss of control of emotions presents aggression, and therein lies the impossibility of living at home.

    I visit him weekly, keep in touch with staff, and follow wherever the medical trail leads. Eric and his brother, Hal, visit frequently. But, as Eric says, there are memories we won’t have.

    Or, we’ll have different memories. Martin can’t remember his age or mine, but he gets close. Why is he focused on his age? “You know I’m leaving, I’m going away,” he says. “Where are you going?” I ask. “I’m dying,” he answers. A moment of clarity. I tell him that he’s in better shape than anyone else there… even though he’s lost at least 20 pounds. Now he’s focused on that.

    Our 49th anniversary was June 12 and Nate’s 17th birthday was June 11. (What a wonderful anniversary gift he was!) All of us, grandkids included, met at the facility to celebrate with candles on an outrageously delicious, decadent chocolate cake and to take pictures. Martin enjoyed it. Did he understand it? I think somewhat, but not for long. Does he remember who was there? Some, but not all, of the faces in the picture were familiar but not all the names. And the next week he wanted to be part of his family again and when would he see them.

    And who can blame him for that? We all want to be part of our families, not feel isolated, alone and abandoned. It’s the basic that holds us together, mentally and physically. It’s what we worked to build for the future. Family. Martin’s not only losing his past, but there is no future for him.

    1. Thanks. That’s a closer – and more painful – look at what’s happening. It’s hard because what he wants is entirely reasonable and understandable to us. But he can’t remember when he’s seen us and been a part of us. He’s so focused on it that he can’t appreciate when it is happening. That’s a major focus I’ve made for my own perspective. Don’t just enjoy an occasion because it’s fun, but really appreciate the moment because it’s special and may not happen again. That was especially true in Seattle this week.

    2. Dear Barbara and Eric, I am amazed at the ability of both of you to put such powerful emotions into words. It’s painful to read and heartbreaking to know what all of you are experiencing. I was thinking that, even though Martin’s joy may be fleeting after family visits end, it is still real joy for him while it lasts. That’s as much as you can ask for him. You can see it in his face and be grateful that you will have given him at least that bit of pleasure as brief as it may be and with confusion mixed in. Without you all what would he have? What would any of us have without the comfort of family for that matter? I can only be there with you in my heart, and I may sound totally simplistic, but at this point I think Martin must still know/feel that joy.

      1. That’s the thing. He’s so upset that he’s not a part of the family and that he needs more interaction that he doesn’t enjoy seeing people as much. That means there’s not as much joy for him as you’d think. It’s also completely irrelevant how often we’ve seen him. A day or two could be a week, months, or multiple years in his head.

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