During my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I was out was asked to assess a woman who’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia and subsequent Parkinsonism when she was 60.
Dee is a former physical education teacher and fitness expert whose escalating lapses in memory, thinking, and judgment were making her anxious and depressed. Doctors prescribed medications for all her symptoms, but some of their side effects left her tired and more forgetful.
We talked on a back porch, on the cool evening while watching the sun set. Dee was well dressed, engaging, conversational, with a sense of humor, in short, seemed quite together. She was oriented in every arena; she knew where she was, whom she was with, and events in the world. Then in a flash, she’d suddenly stop in mid sentence, and have no idea what she’d been talking about. She acknowledged the lapse, asked me where she was in the conversation, and when I reminded her, continued on without hesitation.
These lapses escalated her anxiety, and she was unforgiving of herself for these new limitations. Her husband was devoted to her care, and always by her side. He was clearly wearing down, the stress escalating the frequency of his cardiac arrhythmias.
Dee and I sat on rockers, both under blankets watching the sunset. It’s farewell glow created a halo over the distant snowcapped peaks as we talked intimately about the things that were important to us.
My six year-old Grandson was playing nearby, and the scene was so breathtakingly beautiful that I felt my voice quiver when I spoke. I told Dee that Native people looking at the setting sun and say…thank you for this day and for the one that will come tomorrow. I told her everything changes, the way it was is not the way it is, and it’s up to us to find a way to be happy in this moment. Look how beautiful this is, and as I watched my Grandson I felt my eyes moisten. I told Dee to visit with an animal loving, tree hugging, sage burning friend of mine who had faced some serious losses herself and could help her create more moments just like this.
An estimated 15% of the population over 65 is diagnosed with a dementia, and 33% will be affected by the time they are 85. As a culture we’re getting older, and it’s imposing an enormous burden on families and caregivers. We don’t need to be over-medicating our elderly, we do need to be making more personal connections…(support groups for patients and caregivers, chaplains, friends and relatives, people who will walk the dog with you, see the flowers, hear the music, listen to each others stories), these are all the things that stimulate our physical, sensory and cognitive abilities.
We cannot cure dementia but a community coming together can make the path a healing journey.