More often than not when I arrive for a visit at the care home where my Mama lives, she is either sleeping or simply staring out into space.
I usually put my hand under her chin and turn her head towards me in order to make eye contact and get her attention. When she looks at me, there is no flicker of recognition in her eyes. I’ve come to terms with that – knowing I’m her daughter is a memory that dementia stole long ago.
I always begin with a smile. Establishing eye contact is our initial point of connection. Everything proceeds from there.
When I am able to make eye contact during our visits, it is easier for her to make a connection between my speaking to the noise she is hearing.
A famous quote from Maya Angelou, an American poet says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
A recent study by the University of Iowa has confirmed Angelou’s statement. The results of the study conclude that caregivers can have a profound influence for either good or bad on the emotional state of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s called Emotional memory. It is the memory of the feelings associated with an event, as opposed to the facts of the event. They may not remember the details of a recent visit by a loved one or mistreatment by staff at a nursing home, but those actions can have a lasting impact on how they feel.
One of the researchers in the study, Guzmán-Vélez, states, “Our findings should empower caregivers by showing them that their actions toward patients really do matter.”
So it turns out that even though Mama and others in her condition are not able to remember facts, their emotional memory is as active as ever.
I am not always able to achieve a good connection with Mama during our visits. Sometimes she is so far lost in the world of dementia that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” are unable to pull her consciousness back to this world again. But we are doing the best we can… and so is Mama.