A Beautiful Legacy

Dementia is a journey of struggle and sadness, but it is rich with examples of beauty and kindness.

Rick’s wife had dementia. He made the decision to care for her at home even though he knew it would be difficult and that it would change his life dramatically. With the certainty of someone who has thought long and hard, Rick explained, “Love is a decision.”

Caring for a loved one with dementia is heartbreaking, exasperating, humbling . . . Many things no one ever wants to experience. Being the primary, hands-on caregiver is herculean.

For Rick, normal activities became creative challenges.

His wife was unsteady on her feet but refused to use a walker. She did well at the grocery store, because holding onto a shopping cart provided stability; she didn’t resist, because it was something she was used to. So Rick started taking her to the grocery store every day.

He said, “It gets expensive, maybe $20 a day in groceries just to get her out walking.” Even so, it was a solution to the problem of how keep her physically active.

Did Rick take on this challenge because he loved his wife? Because she would have done the same for him if the roles were reversed?

Rick said his decision went beyond the two of them. He said, “The way you care for your loved-one is a legacy you leave for your family.”

He recognized that even if they were not directly involved, his children and extended family would be observing and considering his choices. The compassion and patience he exhibited (or not) would become part of their family “culture.”

Obviously, we can’t make a big decision like this based on what others might think. Realistically, it’s not always feasible and/or safe to keep someone with dementia at home. But for Rick, it was an option, and he decided to adapt and sacrifice – for his wife’s sake and for what it meant to his family. How beautiful that, in a time of pain and sorrow, he thought beyond himself with so much love and generosity.

Rick spoke at an Alzheimer’s Education Conference in Sacramento last year. I don’t know, one year later, if his wife is still at home with him – or even if she’s still alive. But I loved hearing his story and was grateful to add it to my collection of the many unexpected blessings of dementia.

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Crying is Good For You

Dementia will bring you to tears.

The good news? Tears are good for you.

“Being strong” is part of your job description when you have a loved-one with dementia. But dementia is a long, hard journey, and tears come with the territory no matter how strong you are.

A while back, I stumbled across an article on the internet called “7Good Reasons to Cry Your Eyes Out” by Therese Borchard. It says tears “are like a natural therapy or massage session, but they cost a lot less!”

The writer explains that crying releases toxins from the body and also stimulates the production of endorphins, our natural “feel good” hormones. The article gives credence to the old adage that you’ll feel better after a good cry.

In another online article called “The Miracle of Tears,” writer Jerry Bergman reports that “Suppressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, and peptic ulcers.”

In other words, if you don’t let those emotional tears flow every now and then, you increase your risk for all sorts of health problems.

So, although I don’t recommend opening the floodgates in front of the person with dementia (He is confused and generally feeling bad enough already!), don’t hold back the tears forever.

If your loved-one lives in a memory care community, I guarantee you the staff there is used to tears and won’t be at all shocked if you “fall apart” in front of them. They may even shed a few tears right along with you.

Otherwise, find a friend or just a private place where you feel safe to let the tears flow. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I collapsed sobbing in my car after visits with my dad.

During my “breakdowns,” I doubted I could survive another day of my dad’s dementia. But I did survive. And it turns out that allowing those moments of “weakness” actually helped give me strength to endure.

“What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.” – Jewish Proverb

My dad went through some tough times in his life. He always did what needed to be done, made sure everyone else was taken care of . . . He was as strong as they get, but even he shed a tear or two in its time.

My dad went through some tough times in his life. He always did what needed to be done, made sure everyone else was taken care of . . . He was as strong as they get, but even he shed a tear or two in its time.

Help! He Repeats the Same Stories Over and Over Again!

If your loved-one’s dementia compels him to repeat statements or questions over and over again, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, all I can tell you is that you just have to listen. And then listen again and again – as if you’re hearing it for the first time.

Saying “You’ve already told me that!” doesn’t help.

You can try to redirect or change the subject, but for the most part, you just have to grin, bear it, and play along. It’s one of the rules in dementia-land.

It’s also one of the gifts.

My dad had a few stories he repeated. He told them in almost the exact same way every time; it was like listening to a recording.

His grandmother had 18 children. Only 12 of them survived to adulthood. Eleven of the twelve got married. Dad remembered the names of all those aunts and uncles, and to prove how good his memory was, he proceeded to recite them all.

Many days, I sat through this rather lengthy story two or three times in one hour. (I’m no saint. Notice I didn’t say I listened to the story every time!)

I tried to distract him and change the subject, but once he got started, there was no stopping him. For whatever reason, he needed to tell the story. The complete story. So I let him tell it – without interruption.

I learned to take a deep breath and put on my “Oh really? That’s fascinating” face until he was done.

Another of his oft-repeated stories involved listing the names and backstory of his entire high school graduating class which, mercifully, only comprised 17 people . . .

Deep breath. “Oh, really? That’s fascinating.”

But here’s the gift.

When my dad’s voice became so weak and unintelligible that no one else could understand him, I knew what he was saying. The rhythm and facial expressions that went with his stories were still there. Having heard them a hundred times already, I recognized enough to respond appropriately and to ask questions – even though I knew the answers.

A few days before Dad went on hospice, he was in the hospital, and I was sitting next to his bed talking with him. A nurse walked in and asked incredulously if I could actually understand what he was saying. I chuckled to myself, looked up at her and then began to tell her about Grandma’s 18 children . . .

As I told Dad’s story, his body relaxed and his face brightened with a smile. (He had a great smile!) If that isn’t a gift, I don’t know what is!

I like to think it gave my dad peace to know that his story – a story that had been so important to him – was being told . . . And, more importantly, that he had been heard and would not be forgotten.

I don’t know why his brain got stuck on certain, seemingly random memories/stories, but I thank God for the patience to listen to them over and over again and for the opportunity to repeat them when Dad couldn’t do it himself anymore.

Yes, the repetitive story syndrome will test your patience, but it’s a test worth enduring. It won’t last forever, and it may turn out to be one of the sweetest blessings of the journey.

One of Dad's aunts: When telling his

When telling his “aunt and uncles story,” my dad always made a point of saying that Aunt Nora was his father’s “little” sister. Then he waited for the obligatory chuckle when the fact was revealed that, although younger, Nora was actually bigger than her brother.