by Jan Simpson Benvenuti
“Wouldn’t it be better if your mother died?” a friend asked over tea when I mentioned that my mother had Alzheimer’s disease. Too stunned to reply directly to her remark, I said simply, “Oh no, it’s not that bad,” and I quickly shifted our conversation to her children.
Die? I should have been outraged by her question, yet I learned long ago that many people consider memory loss to be worse than death itself. Would she have asked that question if I told her my mother had breast cancer?
Say the word “dementia” and the world shudders. Tweeters tweet, media moguls opine, and writers of blogs and books rail about the tragedy of memory loss. Yet most people have never actually lived with someone whose memory is fading, and many find the thought unnerving. My mother lived with memory loss for 17 years and I want to emphasize the word lived. For most of those years, she prepared meals, did the laundry, attended family gatherings, and loved her grandchildren. When my father passed away, one sister and I took her into our homes, concerned that she should not live alone. During that time, I came to appreciate the benefits of not remembering, of forgetting the day-to-day indignities of aging, of living in the moment.
At the risk of offending your sensibilities, below is a list of five joys of having dementia.
1) You get to live in the moment again, just as you did as a child. Rain and snow, falling leaves and lightning, the best of mother nature becomes a source of wonder and delight. Do you recall when you measured time by the weather and the season and not the clock? Dementia returns you to that season of life.
2) Young children adore you because you’ll watch them play and perform with joy. My daughter and her friends were five when her Nana came to live with us. I still recall one Sunday afternoon when the girls, bejeweled and dressed with boas, tiaras, dresses and bangles, performed The Hungry Caterpillar over and over and over again. Each time my mother enjoyed the performance with fresh eyes.
3) You’ll forget the rules of life and break them. Eat dessert before dinner, why not?
4) You may forget the loss of your loved ones. After 59 years of marriage, my mother should have grieved for a year or more after my father’s passing. But, she forgot he died. She didn’t forget him, of course, she just forgot that he had passed away. “Does Bob know that I’m here?” she would ask. “Yes,” I’d lie, and we’d resume our activities for the day.
5) You’ll remind your adult children just by your physical presence to take care of their health, appreciate their loved ones, enjoy every moment of life, and not sweat the small stuff.
Dementia may rob your older relatives of memories, but it provides the family an opportunity to celebrate your time with them and convey important family values to your children. One Sunday I planned a special family dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday. “Why are we celebrating her birthday?” my 12 year-old son complained. “It’s stupid, she won’t remember it.” “Really?” I replied, “tell me what you remember about your first birthday party.” He stopped complaining.
My son was right, my mother would not remember her party. But he would, and I would, too. It was our last celebration with her.
How do you enjoy time with your relatives who are growing forgetful? Here are 101 activities you may want to try.
I know, first-hand, the chaos that this disease causes for the elder and their extended family. Yet I refute the belief that those living with dementia have little to teach us in their last years. My mother, like many others, retained cognition through the end of her life using strategies I describe in Don’t Give Up on Me! Consider purchasing a copy through Circle of Life Partners; all proceeds are donated to support elders and their families.
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