>Emotions Outlast the Memories

>What a blessing I received today from one of my Goddaughters, Katherine Thames, who lives in Gulfport, Mississippi. She’s a nursing student, and she was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday and heard this short program about how memories can impact the emotions of Alzheimer’s patients long after the event is over. Click here to listen—it’s only about 4 minutes long and well worth it.
Or you can read the article here.

Katherine sent me the link just as I was driving down to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother (who is 82 and has Alzheimers) in the nursing home where she has lived for a year and a half. Justin Feinstein, a graduate student in neuropsychology at the University of Iowa, did a study to prove that events—happy or sad—affect Alzheimer’s patients long after they forget the actual event. They showed clips of sad, and then happy, movie scenes to patients, who responded with tears, sadness, or laughter at the time.

Later, even when the patients didn’t remember watching the movie scenes, they expressed sadness they couldn’t explain… or an upbeat mood swing, after they watched the happy scenes.

The encouraging thing about this is that family and friends of Alzheimer’s patients often dread visiting their loved ones because they don’t seem to remember the visit. It can be depressing, or feel meaningless. And while I know it isn’t meaningless to visit my mother, whether or not she remembers it, it really helps me to know that the things I do with her will cause her happiness long after she forgets the activity. I try to leave her reminders—like taping the picture we color or paint together on the dresser in her room—and I think that helps. Sometimes I send her a photo of us together, from our last visit, in a card the following week.

Today the physical therapist told me that she’s been working with Mom on “restorative therapy”—especially walking—for a couple of weeks now. Mom refused to cooperate with physical therapy a year ago after her hip replacement surgery, which is why she is stuck in a wheel chair all day long. But now, she’s up and walking (with help) for a few minutes every morning, six days a week. So, I’m sitting in the lobby with Mom this afternoon and I say, “Mom, I’m so glad to hear you’ve been walking some!”

“Really? I can’t remember that.” Blank expression on her face.

But then the therapist walks up and says, “Hi, Miss Effie. I see you daughter, Susan is here. I’ve been telling her about how good you’re doing with your walking now.”

Mom lights up when she sees the therapist and says, “I know you. But I don’t remember walking.”

So the therapist makes movements, showing what Mom looks like shuffing along, taking baby steps with a walker. Mom smiles and laughs gently. “If you say so.”

She doesn’t remember that she’s been walking every morning, but her overall sense of well-being seems better. I ask if her hip is hurting, or her legs, and she says no. So the movement is beneficial, physically, but I think the personal interaction she has with the physical therapist—a happy, upbeat woman—is what causes her long-term emotional boost.

After spending several hours with Mom today—eating cookies, coloring, painting (with paint pens), sitting outside on the patio looking at the plants, and visiting with various staff and residents, I was preparing to say goodbye. I reminded Mom of some of the things we had done together during those hours, and she had already forgotten about the cookies, asking when we were going to have them. Before listening to this story, I would have been frustrated, but now I’m hopeful that somehow she’s going to be on an emotional cookie-high for a while even though she doesn’t remember them.

I hope this study encourages more people to visit their loved ones with Alzheimers. Feinstein says it’s best to have short, frequent, “happy” visits. A friend from Mom’s church called last week and told me that several people, including her daughter, visit Mom regularly, which I didn’t know because Mom never remembers. But I’m hoping that even those short visits are leaving a happy emotional wake.

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