Thursday, April 11, 2024

Partial Eclipse of the Brain

Our town was in the path of totality for the 2017 eclipse, and we hosted an eclipse party for family who were outside the path. In our area, the eclipse of 2024 was only a partial eclipse and knowing I had two obligations for the day, I never purchased eclipse glasses.

When I realized the eclipse was taking place in the time after the Alzheimer’s Walk committee meeting and before playing music at Primrose, I texted the committee to see if anyone had a spare pair of eclipse glasses. I was in luck when Monica brought glasses to the meeting.

After the meeting adjourned, I drove to a nearby parking lot and parked in the shade. I stepped out of my car and looked skyward through the glasses. The eclipse had just begun with only a small semicircle shadow encroaching on one side of the sun. I stood outside my car occasionally monitoring the progress of the eclipse.

A young man approached me and asked if the eclipse had started and if I had an extra pair of glasses. I answered him in the positive and negative. “I just got these glasses from a friend,” I said. “Would you like to look?” I handed him the glasses, he looked, thanked me, and handed the glasses back.

Over the next hour or so, I watched the shadow of the moon block out the sun, and it made me think of how Alzheimer’s eclipses the brain. At first, the shadow only blocked a small part of the sun, and had we not known about the eclipse, we wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

In the early stages of dementia, most of the brain is still functioning and some people go on with their normal life without noticing any significant changes. As we get older, we don’t expect to be as sharp as we were decades before. It’s easy to push aside any concerns about not remembering every little detail. We are busy, after all. Who hasn’t lost their car in a Walmart or a Mall parking lot? When we pay bills online and with paperless statements, it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that we forget to pay the occasional bill or can’t quite finish QuickBooks in a timely manner. Not to mention, my daily tasks includes finding all the objects that I’ve put in the wrong places…and occasionally they are far from where they are normally kept. Another subtle sign of early stage dementia is taking longer to finish tasks. It does take longer now that I’ve lost my ability to multitask.

During the middle stages of dementia, more of the brain is damaged, just as the shadow from the moon covers more of the sun mid eclipse. Memory loss and confusion increase and chunks of personal history and events can disappear like vapor. A person in the middle stage of dementia can forget how to complete common tasks they had previously mastered. At one time, Jim was mechanically inclined, and could fix any appliance. After his dementia progressed, he could take things apart, but wasn’t able to put them back together. Jim used to sleep during the day and pace or wander at night. The biggest danger was that when he wandered, he continued in the same direction. Jim became compulsive about folding paper towels and stuffing his shirt pockets with them. I had to lay out his clothes and help him dress, and sometimes re-dress. Jim became silent as aphasia took away his ability to speak and sing. At one time Jim could play any instrument with strings, but gradually lost the ability to play his guitar.

In the late stages of dementia, the partial eclipse of the brain leaves only a sliver of light shining through. A person in the late stages requires care 24/7. If a loved one is living at home, the days seem as if they are much longer for the care partner. Physical symptoms develop and the caregiver’s responsibly increases exponentially. Careful evaluation is needed to determine at what point professional care is necessary for the person with dementia. Placing a loved one in hospice or long-term care is a gut-wrenching decision. Too often, the decision is made only after the health of the primary caregiver is irreparably impacted.

During a partial eclipse, the shadow accentuates the brilliance of the remaining light. When a loved one has dementia, they still have the part of their being that shines through. I could see it in Jim’s eyes at times, or the way he raised his eyebrows, the warmth of his hand, the laughter, and tears. My most precious memory happened one night when I was preparing to leave the nursing home. I kissed him goodbye and said, “I love you.” From that sliver of light, he found the words to reply, “I love you too,” and I knew he meant it.


Copyright © April 2024 by L.S. Fisher


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