Insights: How Life Experiences Factor Into Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

Life experiences are factors in dementias and Alzheimer's DiseaseThis post begins a series that provides us as caregivers a perspective into the behaviors of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease that I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else. 

I’m a big-picture person. I believe that there are tangible connections among things for everything and everybody.

In other words, nothing is random, even if it appears that way. There’s a logic to everything and everybody. However, the only way to find the order and the logic is to back away from the immediate present and abandon the tendency to believe that it exists in a vacuum.

Nothing and nobody exists in the vacuum of a moment in time. Everything and everybody is the sum of their parts over a continuum of time.

By looking at the whole picture of our loved ones’ lives – life experience, temperament, and personality/quirks/flaws/foibles (which we all have, by the way) – we can gain insight into how those factor into the behaviors we see in their journeys through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Knowledge is power in this case. Because if we understand what factors of a lifetime are driving the behaviors we see, then we can find ways that are beneficial for us and for our loved ones to respond to those behaviors.

I will be the first to admit, from personal experience, getting our responses consistently right is not easy and, at times, because our own emotions (especially as children or grandchildren dealing with parents and grandparents where the landscape, even in the best of circumstances, is complex and complicated) are intimately involved, we will fail. We will fail miserably.

But, as with anything else in life, we have two choices after we fall flat on our faces. We can either quit in defeat or we can get up and try again with more resolve to move forward successfully.

It’s my opinion that a substantial part of the fatigue that we experience as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is not physical, but instead emotional and mental.

And the resolve to not quit emotionally and mentally in going through this journey with our loved ones is a significant contributor to that fatigue.

Do it anyway. For them and for ourselves. Because when we stand alone at the end of this journey we will find out that we gained more than we lost.

We will know ourselves better than most of us probably really want to know ourselves.

We will find strengths that we didn’t know we had. We will be surprised at our endurance and the levels of adversity we had to persevere through.

But we will also find our weaknesses and we will see our shortcomings. A lot of these come to light in the years that follow the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. They come to the forefront of minds slowly as we consider and reflect on the journey.

As painful as that is – and it is very painful – it is positive. Because once we see areas where we need to change, we have the opportunity to change. We have the opportunity to continue to reap the benefit of growth.

That’s why I personally advocate remembering, examining, and considering the journeys we’ve been through with our loved ones. Some people are not able to do that and that’s okay, but personally for me, it has been an unparalleled period of change and growth in my life.

Life experiences factor significantly into the behaviors of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Because short-term memory is impacted more than long-term memory and the core of our perspectives on life are formed during the early years of our lives, the life experiences of the first twenty years of our loved ones lives seem to drive some of the behaviors we see.

For example, my mom’s mother died when she was three days old. Her 78-year-old grandmother and 80-year-old grandfather immediately took Mama and her dad – an absent binge drinker under stress (he disappeared for several days after his wife died while the maternal and paternal grandmothers fought over custody of his daughter) and a World War I veteran whose lungs had been permanently damaged in a mustard gas attack in France – into their lives.

Although Mama was loved, it was an unsettled start to life with constant moves and frequent absences of her father (hospitalizations at the VA hospital, drinking binges, and a few arrests for public drunkenness). 

Mama - 6 years oldWhen Mama was five, the fragile environment of love began to disintegrate.

Her grandfather, her best friend and trusty ally, died. A year later her father succumbed to pulmonary disease.

The memory that haunted her most of her life was the 30 minutes or so before her father died. He told Mama he wanted to talk with her, but she wanted to go outside and play with her cousins. Her father kissed her and said, “Go ahead.”

That was the last time Mama saw her father alive and her guilt over not knowing, because she was six years old, that he was dying and not staying with him when he wanted her to followed my mom all her life.

Shortly after her father’s death, Mama was sent away from the family she knew and loved to live with an aunt she didn’t know and who didn’t want her. For the next 12 years, Mama endured hell on earth. She was all alone in the world. She was mistreated, lied to, and stolen from.

Mama having fun with her grandkidsMama finally escaped and was able to overcome a lot of adversity to become an incredibly accomplished woman and the mother that I loved with all my heart, the wife that my dad cherished and was completely devoted to, and the friend that so many people loved and cherished.

But the road to becoming those people was strewn with a battle to overcome fear, anger, resentment, and bitterness, which Mama finally did in late middle-age. But the one thing Mama never completely overcame was her suspicion that people couldn’t be trusted and, given the opportunity, they’d take advantage of her.

When Mama’s dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease were in full bloom, those life experiences of her first 18 years were primary factors in her behaviors.

The loneliness came back. The fear came back. The anger came back. The bitterness came back. The resentment came back. In full force.

And her normal tendency toward being suspicious of everyone as a possible threat to take everything away from her blossomed into a full-throttle paranoia that I wouldn’t have believed unless I’d been the one who’d seen it and been on the receiving end of most of the time.

All of these things took me by surprise because they all came at once in high gear. I was overwhelmed and unprepared emotionally and mentally to deal with the onslaught.

At first I blamed myself. I kept wondering – and looking for – what I had done or said to trigger Mama’s behaviors. Every place I even thought there was a possibility that something I’d said or done was the trigger, I changed immediately.

But Mama’s behavior didn’t change. In fact, it got worse.

It was hard not to take it personally. There were many times when I’d walk away to defuse the situation and just sob because I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t help Mama.

But I thought about the whys of Mama’s behavior day and night as I searched for answers and ways that I could help. And in the process, I found compassion, empathy, and patience.

Why? Because I realized my mom was that scared six-year-old little girl who had her whole life ripped apart and thought she was all alone in the world. And that six-year-old girl knew what lay ahead in the next 12 years of her life and she was determined not to let it happen this time because all of the emotions associated with that were front and center.

My understanding of how my mom’s life experiences were factors in her dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease gave me insights into why she was doing what she was doing and into ways that I could tangibly quiet her fears and soothe – not entirely – those raging emotions associated with the most disruptive time of her life.

So I urge all of us, as we’re able, to go back over our loved ones’ lives and see where the connections are, even as far back as early childhood, that factor into the behaviors we see as they walk the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s disease.

I promise you that it will be worth it not only for us as caregivers but for our loved ones as well.

 

6 thoughts on “Insights: How Life Experiences Factor Into Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

  1. Well written. Your Mother had such a hard life, her strength helped her through a lot of sorrow, fear and pain. My Mother went through very hard times in her life and her strength got her through. Mom use to tell me to – “Square those shoulders, chin up, face the world head on.” Mom helped me be the strong person I needed to be through her examples. Your Mother’s problems as she journeyed through her alzheimer/dementia world were overwhelming, I am glad she had your love and support.

    • Like you, my mom taught me how to be tough and how not to quit. I have a niece who’s had a rough go through her childhood and I see a lot of similarities between her and her grandma (they were close). I always remind her to follow her grandma’s example and take all those negatives and the energy that comes from them – which can be destructive if not used productively – and do what her grandma did in the same situation. I have a ton of respect for the things Mama taught me and was fortunate enough to have a dad who taught me the balance (even if I don’t get it right all the time).

  2. Pingback: Insights: How Personality, Quirks, Foibles, and Flaws Factor Into Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease | Going Gentle Into That Good Night

  3. Pingback: Insights: How Temperament Factors Into Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease | Going Gentle Into That Good Night

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