It was a warm July day when Bob got down on one knee inside the University of Washington’s Suzzallo library and whispered, “Joan, will you marry me?”
Bob was a little clumsy. His glasses slipped off just as he proposed. She laughed and said “Yes.” Joan was wearing a blue dress. Bob’s white shirt was wrinkled.
Joan remembers that day in 1948 like it was yesterday. But she can’t remember what she did yesterday and she doesn’t know her adult children’s names.
“I remember the day that I walked in to see my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease and she didn’t know who I was,” says Kelly Scott.
Joan and Kelly’s grandmother are some of the estimated 5.3 million people in the U.S. who have Alzheimer’s – a disease diagnosed most often in people over 65, that results in memory and brain function loss. And it worsens as it progresses.
“The short term memory is very much impacted – unable to remember what they just had for lunch or breakfast or that they even ate a meal, but it’s amazing how they can continue to tell us the stories of their wedding day, or their parents, or their children as babies and toddlers,” says Scott, vice president of programming with Senior Living centers.
Anyone who has a parent with Alzheimer’s knows how frustrating it can be to deal with someone who can’t remember much.
There’s new thinking for managing Alzheimer’s that suggests family members let the person enjoy some of their happier times through a “memory vacation,” rather than being stressed about what the person doesn’t remember.
The memory-cation doesn’t have to involve taking a parent to a particular location.
“Rather than feeling the pressure that you need to get on a plane or take a long road trip, which may not be that relaxing, it’s really about bringing it to where they are right now,” says Scott.
“Maybe you have postcards or photos for a special place or you can even open your laptop or tablet and Google images from Paris and look at the Eiffel Tower and let them tell the story.”
It’s good to involve all five senses with this type of vacation. The taste of food from a favorite vacation, the smell of sunscreen, the feel of sand, or the sound of an ocean can all trigger strong memories.
The health of the family members and the person with Alzheimer’s can benefit from the memory-cation through reduced anxiety.
“In telling those stories you’ll see smiles and laughs and a confidence return that they might not have throughout the day,” Scott says.
Kitty Parker’s 87-year-old mom Barbara lives in an assisted living center in Bellevue.
“My mom was a very glamorous kind of 40s woman. Still to this day, even with her dementia, she has to have her lipstick,” she says.
Some weeks her mother’s dementia is easier to handle than others, but Parker’s found recalling the past helps both of them through improved communication and lower stress.
“My mom, and our family, we’ve all been card players our whole lives. We’d go camping, we’d go fishing, we’d be playing cards, and talking,” she says. “When we do that today, she’ll have sparks of memories. I’m lucky still to see glimpses of her. That keeps me going.”
Her voice softens and sounds more serious when she says, “I’m gonna dread the day I don’t see those sparks anymore. That’s going to be a real sad day for me, and for her, and for our family.”
Researchers say two new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease have shown promise in early experiments and will likely progress to the next round of clinical trials.
One drug reduces the levels of a sticky protein that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The second drug is thought to reduce damaging inflammation that leads to impairment of memory and thinking.
Until science is able to come up with an effective treatment for the disease, those who work with Alzheimer’s patients say there are benefits to remembering the distant past through something like a memory vacation.
“It can reduce fear because they’re not focused on what they don’t know, or trying to make sense of a world that they don’t quite understand,” says Scott.
“All of their attention is on something that they are very familiar with. Those long term memories create that sense of comfort and can help put them at ease.”
By LINDA THOMAS