Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon whereby the Alzheimer patient does not recognize their own reflection any more, either in a mirror or in a car window. This is due to brain cells dying out, and they are not replaced – which causes the patient to actually NOT know who they are looking at!

Think of the brain as a computer system which has ‘glitches’ caused by lack of blood flow to the brain – Different areas of memory are affected, even entire YEARS are completely erased. So, for the typical Alzheimer patient, the PAST becomes their PRESENT – while the PRESENT becomes the FUTURE.

This means that they are living in the PAST, where their brain cells are still alive, alert and functioning. This may be at the age of 70, 60, 50 or even further back. But this becomes their PRESENT, their ACTUAL REALITY. It would be as if WE were transported suddenly 25 years ahead in our own lives, into our FUTURES – we would be just as lost, confused, terrified and irritated as THEY are!! They do not understand their futures, any more than we would – We would not recognize ourselves as old people either.

I remember showing my mother a mirror and her telling me that ‘she looked like an old lady’, she did not know who she was!! I showed her picture albums and she knew herself up to the age of 50 years old – All pictures after that point in time were completely foreign to her, erased in her own memory banks, never to be retrieved.

It is my personal, and very strong, opinion that WE, the caregivers of the Alzheimer patient, should make the effort to function in the PATIENT’s REALITY, which is THEIR PAST, wherever their brain is still alive, alert and functioning. It is far easier for US to spend what time we are with them, listening to them share from the vast storehouse of information and experiences, whether it be 20 years ago or further. We can learn a lot from their recollections, because the brain remembers things in great, vivid detail.

The alternative is to argue and conjole them to live in OUR REALITY, which is to them, a FUTURE they do not understand, is either a nightmare or a dream they cannot make sense of – Arguments ensue, hurt feelings evolve, and confusion reigns. It takes so little for us to step into THEIR shoes and look through THEIR eyes, live in THEIR reality if only for a little while – And so less exhausting than trying to continually force them to live in OUR realities, just so that WE can feel more secure!! After all, it is the PATIENT whose welfare we are trying to protect and develop, never our own..

I know a lot of people fear that their loved one will some day not recognize THEM, and they are not sure how they will handle the pain of suddenly being a ‘non-entity’. However, it is my personal experience that my mother not recognizing ME was not the saddest part of her illness. Rather, it was when she no longer recognized HERSELF, the things that had brought her great joy in this life, the pleasures in living upon earth were gone, her personality disintegrating, bit by bit, piece by piece, until little else remained.

I do have one golden memory that stands out during those years of caring for
my mother. After having a major stroke and being in a coma for a few days, my mother suddenly woke up. She found herself in the hospital bed in our home, and for some reason her mind had gone back to the time when she was hospitalized to give birth to ME!! I came into the room and she asked me who I was – I told her my name and she said, my, I just named my own daughter that name!! I looked into my own mother’s eyes and she was literally glowing with joy and pride!! I knew I had discovered a secret not many children will EVER have the opportunity to witness or grasp, that moment of birth when your own mother is totally in rapturous awe at the thought of YOU coming into their lives!! At that moment, looking into her glowing eyes, I knew what I had longed to know my entire life – That I was truly loved, wanted and desired. My mother loved me!! It was like having an entire glimpse into a past I could NEVER enter otherwise, and what I found was great joy and beauty!! I will never forget the glow of the love my mother carried for me on my birth…

So, in closing, think about how the Alzheimer patient has experienced a total altered reality – Their perceptions are altered forever – As the disease progresses, they lose more active brain cells and retreat further and further back into their memories, into the lives they once lived. This is not like a MEMORY to them now – It is an ACTUAL LIVING REALITY!! And once in a great while, we get the unique privilege of a glimpse inside their minds, their hearts, their very souls. What we find there is not chaos or turmoil – Instead we find great joy and love in great abundance – We find the beauty of the soul!!

Copyright Dorothy Womack 1999