Who are all these people?

finishing-well-in-life-shield-Red Bluff High School's Spartan shield.
Red Bluff High School’s Spartan shield.

Have you ever wondered what it felt like to experience dementia? Reunions are the perfect events for just that type of experience.

Try gathering together with a large group of folks you are supposed to know because you all graduated from the same school 40 years earlier. I must confess that I spent a great deal of time reading name tags—trying to fit the name with the face. There were a few people that I didn’t remember even after reading the name tag. Our school wasn’t that large, but perhaps we never shared any of the same classes.

Scanning the various faces in the room, I realized that there were a few whose name tags I didn’t need to read—they had not changed since high school. Apparently, no one had bothered to mention it to those particular folks that at some point they were supposed to age.

Remembering a previous reunion of sorts

The joy I felt at recognizing a familiar face reminded me of something that occurred at my Daddy’s memorial service several years ago.  At that point, my Mama was well into the first stages of dementia and her memory was quite poor.  My husband, sister and I were standing by my Mama while friends and family walked past offering their condolences. Suddenly Mama’s face brightened up with a big smile as she said, “Oh, there’s a familiar face!” The rest of us all looked at each other in amazement. What a relief she must have felt at that moment to actually recognize someone.

This was only the second reunion I’d attended in 40 years since I graduated.  I was glad I came to this one. Visiting and reconnecting with former classmates was a good experience.  Those who attended were each champions in their own way. Among our classmates, some had experienced the thrill of victory and some the agony of defeat.

I read the list of those who had already passed on and silently grieved for each life cut short. I was glad for those I have kept in touch with over the years and was even surprised to learn that there were actually a few who still lived in the area that I had not seen since high school.

Facebook has offered a wonderful way to do a better job of staying connected going forward. I will remember this event fondly and look forward to number 50.


Upside Down and Backward

During a recent round of physical therapy sessions, I was pleased to learn that one of the exercise sets involved walking backward.

It reminded me of a delightful time back when my Mama, who is currently suffering from the last stages of dementia, could still remember how to walk. Mama loved to go swimming. She loved to be in the water. At the time, we had a membership at a wellness center that included an indoor pool. The majority of my time in the pool was spent walking backward while facing Mama so she would walk frontwards as we ambled back and forth in the water. At the time, one of the attendants mentioned that walking backward was good for the brain – it helps with memory.

Well, that was encouraging. But that was then and life moved on. Mama forgot how to walk and we stopped going to the pool.

So there I was on the treadmill set for reverse and the wonderful memory of Mama and I walking back and forth in the pool came back to me. I remembered the statement someone had said about walking backward being good for memory and wondered if it was really true.

In a previous post, Keep Smelln’ Them Flowers I wrote about the benefits of brain function regarding the olfactory system with the sense of smell.

Taking a step backward

Hanging a calendar upside down forces the brain to change how it processes information.
Hanging a calendar upside down forces the brain to change how it processes information.

I wondered if that could apply to other senses as well. I did a bit of research on Google, and it turns out that the internet has a lot to say on the subject.  I learned that walking backward falls into a category of actions called ‘neurobic exercises’.

According to SheKnows.com Neurobics is the science of brain exercise.

Neurobic exercises, in a nutshell, are: Doing the ordinary things in new, surprising and unexpected ways. Break routines. For example, turn your calendar upside down. Find a safe place to walk backward.

A website called Physiotherapy-treatment.com  provides several Neurobic exercises to try. Don’t make too many changes at once, attempt things and find out what works for you. Develop a mindset that asks, “How can I do this differently?”

Since neurobic exercises can help make a person’s brain more responsive to mental challenges, they could actually enhance the quality of life for both caregiver and those being cared for.

So, now that I think about it, perhaps Mama should have been the one walking backward in the pool.

In future posts, we will be sharing additional ideas for neurobic exercises. Stay tuned!

Keep Smell’n Them Flowers

Usually when someone says, “Stop and smell the roses”, it means that person wants you to slow down, relax, unwind. Well, as a caregiver, you may find yourself agreeing with the idea and wishing you could take a moment here and there to enjoy a quick sniff.

A beautiful sunflower from my garden

But no, wait! There are other reasons you may want to indulge in a whiff or two.

Recent studies suggest that there is an entirely different reason to pause and take pleasure in the aroma of not only flowers, but coffee perking, popcorn popping, and freshly baked bread.

Pausing to breathe in the lovely fragrance of a favorite flower does more than providing a person with a moment of pleasure. The actual process of smelling helps stimulate the neural pathways in our brain to keep them clear or even encourage new branches.

Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment & Research Foundation in Chicago says, “Someone who is colorblind can look at red and green all day but never see it. But with a smell, you can actually cause nerve connections to act and smell what perhaps you couldn’t before.”

Ron Winnegrad, director of International Flavors Fragrances Inc.’s New York perfumery school, teaches aspiring perfumers the basics of perfume skills. His first rule of thumb: Be scent-conscious in your day-to-day life. “If you’re drinking a cup of coffee or tea, actually smell it before you drink it, and when eating food, smell it first,” he says. “If you do this on a regular basis, you will increase your sense of smell.”

Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the most closely tied to memories – especially childhood memories. After nearly a half-century, I occasionally catch a whiff of something that takes me back to summer mornings when I was a child in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where we spent our summers.

One of the saddest aspects of my Mama’s dementia was the realization that she had lost her sense of smell. Her favorite flower was wisteria. We had a beautiful vine full of lovely lavender flowers growing near our front porch. I tried to encourage Mama to try smelling them, but she wasn’t able to understand what to do when I put a flower up near her nose.

If your loved one has any sense of smell, aromatherapy is worth a try. Even if it does nothing to reverse or delay cognitive impairment, it has been shown to reduce or ease some of the disturbing symptoms of dementia.

Alistair Burns, professor of old age psychiatry at the University of Manchester in the U.K. says, “A whiff of soothing lavender or exposure to bright light may be enough to relieve some of the most disturbing symptoms of dementia.

The British researcher  says certain alternative therapies may be effective ways to counter the effects of mental decline without the negative side effects of some medications.finishing-well-in-life-violet

So, what are you waiting for? Find a flower, bring to your nose. Sniff. Repeat.