Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Alzheimer’s: A Process of Unlearning

On Sunday morning, Pastor Jim told us about a NASA study to test creativity. A group of five-year-old children were given the same test devised for NASA to help them in finding creative engineers and scientists. The little children tested at 98%. Retested at the age of ten, scores were at 30%. At fifteen, their scores plummeted to 12%. The same test was given to adults, who scored a measly 2%.

Between the ages of childhood and adulthood, an unlearning process had stripped the test subjects of their innate creativity. Children use their imaginations until adults interfere. My granddaughter’s kindergarten teacher labeled her “immature” because she liked to pretend she was a puppy. Immature in kindergarten? I would hope so!

So we know that if we do nothing to fire our imagination, we unlearn creativity. This made me think about what my mom said one day about Jim. She said, “He’s unlearning.”

When you ask most people about Alzheimer’s the first thing they think of is memory loss. Memory loss is only the beginning. People with dementia unlearn. Skills and talents learned throughout a lifetime are steadily, progressively unlearned.

  1. Jim unlearned how to tie his shoes. I bought him shoes with Velcro. Then he forgot how to choose his clothes each day. I laid them out each morning. We worked through other problems: he unlearned how to button his 501 Levis, how to put his belt through the loops, or that buttons should line up with the buttonholes.
  2. Jim unlearned how to have a conversation. He couldn’t tell his tall tales anymore. Then he couldn’t remember the names of objects or even names of close friends and relatives. Our long conversations ended, and we spent our days in silence.
  3. He unlearned how to play his guitar and couldn’t remember lyrics to songs he’d known practically his entire life. I think this was the hardest part for both of us. His music had always been a big part of his life, and it gradually faded away to nothing.
  4. At the end, he forgot how to feed himself. He forgot how to swallow liquids without choking. He forgot how to walk. He’d unlearned a lifetime of learning.
Of all the things he unlearned, he didn’t forget love. He may have lost the intricacies: the sweet words, the thoughtful gestures, delivering the single rose he bought at the gas station to me at work. I missed a hundred little things that made Jim, Jim.

The unlearning part of Alzheimer’s unravels life as it was, and we are left with what undeniably is. Then, our choices are clear. Accept your loved one for the person he or she has become, or grieve for what was and what will never be.

Grief is a normal caregiver emotion, and how we handle grief is as individual as each person. Coping with grief should be a priority. We cannot be the kind of caregiver we want to be without taking care of ourselves mentally and emotionally.

I’ve talked to many caregivers who walked through the darkness of dementia and faced their new reality head on. Those who go on to live a full life share the common threads of optimism and a sense of humor. They find creative ways to displace the darkness of dementia with a bright and shining light of laughter and unconditional love.

Copyright © January 2016 by L.S. Fisher

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