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

Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “FinishingWell: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and tips about doing life with my Mama.  May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy on your own, unique journey.

Find our group on Facebook 

Paperback or Kindle edition
Paperback or Kindle edition

 

 

 

Usually when someone says, “Stop and smell the roses”, it means that the 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.

finishing_well-in-life-sunflower-from-my-garden
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.

Stop, sniff, and smell

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.



Has your world been touched by dementia? My book,         “FinishingWell: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and tips about doing life with my Mama.  May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy on your own, unique journey.

Find our group on Facebook 

Paperback or Kindle edition
Paperback or Kindle edition

 

 

 



Tips for help remembering nouns

Name that noun

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with someone and blanked on a person’s name or the name of a place or thing? Any type of noun? It seems to be a common occurrence among older adults.

For example, I recently heard a story about a lady who had just received an annual delivery of salmon filets. She was relieved to see that each fish was intact, as the prior year’s shipment had some fillets with chunks cut out due to sea lions attacking and biting the salmon in the nets.

While telling a friend how happy she was to get the fish in such good condition this year, her friend asked what had happened to them the year before. As she began to reply, she blanked on the word ‘sea lions’. So instead she said, “They were bitten by ground squirrels.finishing-well-in-life-squirrel1

I can relate.

The significant difference between normal lapses – such as forgetting someone’s name and worrisome memory loss is determined by the impact it has on your ability to function—your ability to do the things you want to do.

Normal age-related forgetfulness, including nouns

According to helpguide.org, the following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name
  • Occasionally forgetting an appointment
  • Having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation
  • Walking into a room and forgetting why you entered
  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Not quite being able to retrieve the information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”

On a good note, it turns out that our brains seem to be capable of producing new cells at any age, so just as physical exercise helps strengthen muscles, there are a variety of ways to strengthen our brains to improve cognitive skills as well as prevent memory loss.

My sister and I have developed our own test for determining whether or not a lapse indicates normal forgetfulness or impending dementia. (Although we don’t remember ever forgetting anything.) It’s okay to forget where your keys are, it’s not okay to forget what your keys do.”

Sfinishing-well-in-life-squirrel2o remember, although frustrating, most age-related memory lapses are not the same as dementia. I’ve decided that the next time I can’t remember what to call a particular noun, I believe I will call it a ground squirrel’.

Laughter…..

The onset of dementia brought about a surprising change in Mama. She developed a love for slapstick comedy.  My genteel Mama who had always loved Broadway shows and Classical music suddenly enjoyed watching someone get a pie in the face. Of course, the masters of slapstick themselves, the “Three Stooges” zoomed to the top of our movie stack.

There is one particularly entertaining scene where one of them is playing a violin and the bow keeps catching on the toupee of the guy standing next to him.  That particular bit caused Mama to almost roar with laughter. So, of course we played it over and over. And over. It was ALWAYS a surprise to her when the wig came off and she loved it. We loved watching her laugh and be happy.

We also began watching “Laurel and Hardy” as well as “Shirley Temple”. The nice thing about slapstick is that it is a sudden action that doesn’t have to be explained.

When Mama watched her funny movies, it lightened her mood and the rest of the evening usually went smoother. It seems that the saying is true, “If Mama’s happy, everyone is happy”.

The Bible tells us in Proverbs “A joyful heart is good medicine” Laughter may be especially good medicine for dementia patients – and best of all, it doesn’t have any unpleasant side effects.

A recent ‘SMILE Study’   conducted by the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia appears to agree. They used humor therapy on 400 residents at 36 different nursing homes to discover whether humor could improve the lives of people living with dementia. The results showed a 20 per cent reduction in agitated behavior such as aggression, wandering, screaming and repetitive actions.

Even Shakespeare recognized the value in growing older with joy. In “The Merchant of Venice”, he wrote: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”

Some of the well-known Benefits of laughter include:

  • Lower stress hormones
  • Ease of anxiety and fear
  • Easing tension and lightening the mood
  • Strengthened lungs/immune system
  • Increase in social interaction

Find ways to laugh. Be silly, make silly faces or even pretend to laugh-which at times can be enough to prime the laughter pump.

Watch funny movies and read books that are humorous and take your mind off the situation. Mama also loved looking at a directory we happened to have that contained some faces with funny expressions.

Dementia is no laughing matter, but both caregivers and patients will fare much better if we remember to laugh. Find a way, seize a moment, and laugh every single day.

How has laughter benefited you or your loved one with dementia? Share your story about how laughter has made a difference.

Only the Lonely

I was visiting with a friend today. It turns out that his dad has dementia, and he was grieving about a very painful part of reality called loneliness when it comes to folks afflicted with this condition. Not only is it “The long goodbye”, but too often it also a “Journey of lonesomeness”.

Unfortunately, their forgetfulness tends to cause friends and family to forget about them. Not in the cold, unfeeling or hateful way. No! Rather in more of the “I don’t know what to sayway, or the “Why go? They won’t even know I’m thereway, or the “It’s too sad or depressing to see them in that situationway.

My heartbroken friend went on to say that it didn’t seem to matter what his father had achieved or accomplished, who he’d helped or the man he was, once dementia crept in and took over everything changed. Colleagues, friends, and even family began to avoid him.

He’s not the only one who has mentioned it. It seems to be a common complaint among caregivers.  At times, those who care for others begin to feel that they alone are shouldering the burden of care. Why is that?

I believe it’s because folks might feel unqualified, uncertain or afraid they might say the wrong thing. People honestly don’t know what to say. Or if their person is suffering from dementia, they won’t remember the visit. And, it can be a sad thing to see someone who was once vibrant and full of life to become frail and feeble.

Perhaps what is needed is a bit of coaching ahead of time to help folks know all that’s really needed is a smile, a touch, and a kind voice.

It really doesn’t matter what you say. Simply entering the room with a smile and taking their hand can create a connection. As far as what to say, try reciting scripture, reading poetry or the newspaper. Perhaps picking up a novel you were interested in and reading a few chapters each visit. Sing a few songs or use  youtube.com  on your phone/tablet to play some songs from when they were younger.

If eating is allowed, bring a special treat (definitely check with the caregiver first).  Allow your person to live in the past if that is where they are. A story listened to even if it’s repeated over and over can be considered conversation.

Yes, it can be depressing to see someone in that setting, but perhaps your visit can bring a bit of joy and create a connection that may just improve the quality of life for both of you.

Please share any other helpful tools and tips can be offered to those who have found themselves avoiding visits.

Managing Medications

Does your loved one take medications? A lot of them? This post just might help make it a bit more manageable

In my research for ‘all things dementia’, I came across the following site:  Managing Medications for People with Dementia  dementiameds.com

It is UK based, so some of the information might not apply, but there are quite a few great tips on how to manage the vast volumes of medications that some of our loved ones have to take.

When I was managing my Mama’s multitudes of meds, it was overwhelming at times. My sister created a fabulous Excel doc that charted all the information regarding each medication. Among other things, it included the frequency, the dose, when it was last ordered, the RX number and even price.  In spite of all the finger pokes, injections and pills (oh my), Mama remained fairly agreeable.

Mama’s general cooperation was something I was always very thankful for as I knew some had outright fights on their hands at times to give their loved-ones all the meds they needed. Even so, it was a challenge at times to get everything just right.

If you are on medication overload, check out this site and glean all the useful/helpful tidbits that can make meds aspect of caregiving a bit more manageable.

Please share any tips you have come across while attempting to conquer the medicine mountain.

The Visitor

I recognize the sound of her footsteps in the hallway. Is she going to visit me? She’s here!  I have to try to open my eyes or she’ll think I’m asleep.

“Hi Mama”, she says with a bright smile. I wish I could respond to her greeting. She’s placing her hand under my chin, and turning my head a little so I can look at her. Oh! I think I smiled!

She begins the visit with her usual question “How are you feeling today?”  How I wish I could tell her this time…I just don’t know how.

I try to reach out to her, but my hands won’t obey. They feel as if they are glued into a fist. I’ve been holding tightly to something, but I can’t remember what it is anymore, and can’t let go. Somehow my fingers have forgotten how to unfold. “What are you holding onto, Mama?” She asks as she slowly opens my hand. It takes a while and it feels a bit uncomfortable, but I love how she holds my hand and rubs my fingers as she talks to me.

Yikes! She always seems to think it’s necessary to tickle my feet.  I wish I could move my feet to let her know I can feel it….oh well. I grimaced. At least I think I grimaced.

“Do you want to sing with me?” she asks. Yes! She’s singing my favorite song, “My wild Irish rose”. I want to sing too! I try, but my mouth doesn’t work right. I think she sees me trying because she is beginning again.

Am I singing now? I think I am…but it’s so hard to tell. She asks me again, “Come on, Mama, sing with me.” I must not be. She looks at me with anxious eyes; I desperately wish I could make my mouth work! Another song? I’m glad she doesn’t give up. I’m trying – really I am. I love listening to her sing; I wish she could know how loud I am singing on the inside.

My mouth is so dry that it doesn’t want to work right. I’ll try to tell her I’m thirsty. Oh, what’s this, grape juice? Maybe she understood. Yuck! It tastes so blah. She seems to think it’s my favorite. Okay, I’ll drink it. I think I’m drinking.  Wow, something cold is running down my neck – maybe it’s the juice.

Oh yeah, I need remember to swallow. Swallow, swallow, swallow – that’s better. Is it all gone? I think so! I guess I feel a bit better, but I wish I could tell her that grape is not my favorite.

Oh no, here comes the wet washcloth. I don’t like this part. She wipes with it all over my face; eyes, nose, mouth – even my neck where the juice was cold. Now comes the lipstick. It’s such a pretty color. Oh good, she’s putting it on me! I hope I look nice.

Now she’s praying. I love it when she prays for me. She says the words that I wish I could say out loud to God. I can feel God’s presence, I wonder if she notices? What’s this? Am I crying? It’s so hard to tell…

All done – she’s getting ready to leave, “Bye Mama”, she says. “I’ll see you when I come back.”Oh, how I hate to see her leave! I hope she’ll be back again soon.

Hmmm, I wonder who she is?

Listen Up

Listening is essential. Your loved one may be trying to tell you something. It is important to listen.

The initial awareness of dementia brings to mind several concerns and fears both spoken and unspoken. Some are deep-seated and unconscious and others are at the surface. Not everyone is comfortable voicing their worries. Body language speaks volumes.  As soon as you become aware of an issue, listen purposefully for both the verbal and non-verbal messages.

When my Mama was at the beginning of her journey through dementia, she was able to talk. Even then, her thoughts and ideas were distorted by what we referred to as her “loop”. It was a statement that she grabbed onto and repeated over and over with increasing frequency as time went on. The “loop” eventually pushed out any other form of conversation.

Listen with your whole being. Smile, make eye contact, and lean in to catch each nuance.
Listen with your whole being. Smile, make eye contact, and lean in to catch each nuance.

Later, she began living in a world that was rather disconnected to reality. She would speak, but it wasn’t in a conversation manner – it was more like a series of statements that didn’t flow with the rest of the conversation. The loop was gone, but it was as if her words came from some automatic speech response area of her brain. For example, if you asked her how she was, she would reply, “I’m fine.” even when she clearly wasn’t. Or, if she was asked a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, she would reply, “Oh yes” the majority of the time.

As time when on, and her speech became even more limited, I relied on observations. Indicators such as wide swings in her blood sugar levels told me she wasn’t feeling well even when there was no fever.

Sudden agitation was also often an indicator of pain. If she said something over and over that didn’t make sense, and there wasn’t anything obviously wrong, I would try offering her a drink of water or a snack.

Now that Mama is nearing the end of her earthly journey. She now communicates with me with her eyes. They look at me when I smile and fill with tears when I sing.

At some point, your loved one’s ability to express thoughts and feelings with words may no longer be an option. Thankfully, words are not the only form of communication.

I believe there is an enduring willingness for our loved ones to communicate. Dementia creates a barrier to getting the message out.

Somewhere deep inside there seems to be a part that is aware, on some level what is going on around them. Listen. What do you see?

What non-verbal statements have you heard?

Sing, sing, singing the blues away

Are you feeling blue? Overwhelmed? Take heart – or take up singing.

The almost magical affect music has on those suffering from dementia are well established, but what about those who care for them?

Here’s some good news: I just read about a study that showed a wonderful side-benefit to music therapy. It seems that it does more than enhance the quality of life of dementia patients – it also appears to improve the mood and emotions of caregivers.

Another surprise, according to this five-month study conducted in the UK, was that the benefit lasted well after the trial ended, measurements taken two months later showing continued improvement.

Music is the language of the soul. It appears to enter the brain differently than words alone or other noise. To gain the most benefit from musical therapy, it is important to be engaged in the music somehow, rather than just having it play in the background.

A few ways to really engage are:

Singing, humming or whistling is the best way to connect to the music. Also, the use of headphones can be helpful as well as viewing a music video. The most effective songs seem to be the tunes from a persons ‘formative years’. For my Mama, who was born in 1931, the top hits of the 1940s as well as hymns had the most impact on her. A variety of online sites such as www.youtube.com  can provide easy access to a variety of music videos.

Not sure what music is best? Try a song and watch for a positive reaction. Develop a playlist. If it turns out that the list is short, it is okay. If someone has dementia, songs can be played over and over again as long as they are helpful to the listener.

Have you noticed this to be true in your experience?

For Want of a Word

While feeding Mama her thickened juice today, I suddenly wanted to hear her voice. I wanted her to say something—anything. It has been several months since she has uttered a single word.

I even tried to ask her some easy ‘yes’ questions to try to see if she would give me one of those automatic responses. With a smile, I words-finishing-well-in-lifelooked into her eyes and asked, “Do you like your juice? Is it tasty? Would you like some more?”

She tried to answer. I could tell by the almost imperceptible movement of her lips as well as the sweet expression on her face that she really wanted to say something. She looked at me intently as I continued to ask her questions. I finally gave up and began singing to her as she finished up her juice.

I got to thinking about words. Words are great. Words hold so much power—so much potential for both good and evil. Kind words are gifts we can give each other; to our spouses, family and friends.

Proverbs 25:11 states, “The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry,” (The Message Bible)

On the other hand, words that are wanted, but not received are heartbreaking. I wish I had a recording of Mama’s voice from when she could talk. But though I don’t have her voice, I still have her and I give her the gift of hearing my voice as often as I am able.

Later, as I was thinking about it, the words to an old nursery rhyme floated through my head:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Words are like that nail. They are building blocks of both relationships and memories. They can bring joy, provide hope and offer second chances. We would all benefit from a ‘word at the right time’.

Instead of a nail, the rhyme could be rephrased:

For want of a word the joy was lost
For want of a joy the chance was lost
For want of a chance the time was lost
For want of a time the hope was lost
For want of a hope the memory was lost
All for the want of a word

With the prevalence of phones, tablets and computers we can instantly give timely and thoughtful words to anyone we know, no matter where they are in the world.

Is there someone who needs to hear your voice today?

Great starts are easy, the goal is to finish well