What My Trip to the Distillery Reminded Me About Dementialand

I’ve never been someone who has struggled with motivation. I have been someone who has struggled with fun. And you might think struggling to have fun is better than struggling to be motivated, but I disagree. To live the best possible life, we have to balance motivation and fun.

I sometimes opted out of recess in elementary school. I stayed inside to organize art supplies for the teacher. Often I used wipes to disinfect the desks or straightened letters on the bulletin board. Yep, I was that kid.

In college, I didn’t go out on Friday nights with friends because I had a paper to work on–even if that paper wasn’t due for another week or two. Sometimes I stayed in because I knew Friday night was the best time to use the washers and dryers in the residence hall. (Hot tip: It really was.)

In many ways, I was pretty lame until I was about 27. I’d like to think I’m more fun now than I used to be. I may also be a little bit less motivated and ambitious than I used to be. I’m better at understanding what has to be done now and what can be done later. I’ve figured out that some of the things I used to see as important just aren’t.

This is a busy time of year in the academic world. It’s the last week of classes before finals. My schedule is stacked with appointments with students concerned about their grades. I have a load of assignments to evaluate. And I’ve been out in the community a lot the past month doing public speaking and community education.

However, about a week ago, I decided to forget about my to-do list (something I may not have done ten years ago) and go on a field trip of sorts. I planned a trip to a distillery and winery about an hour away. I had checked into tours a while back, and we (my husband Bill and our friends Kristi and Paul) set our sights on a 3 pm tour. We left early enough to get some lunch–and wine–there. Kristi was even nice enough to pack us individual snack packs for the car. Mine was special because I’m a vegetarian. She aims to please.

I had been excited about this outing since we had planned it. And that brings me to a point I want to make about fun…there are three parts of fun. First, we anticipate having fun, and the anticipation of fun is fun in itself. I had fun anticipating and thinking about our upcoming trip to the distillery/winery. I even had fun telling other people about our planned trip. The second part of fun is the actual occasion of having fun. In this case, we had fun on our outing. (Well, I did. I hope everyone else did as well.) And then there’s the third part of fun, which is remembering the fun. Remembering fun is fun in itself.

Every other year, a group of my family and friends (with my mom as ringleader) plans a trip to South Carolina. We’ll be going in August. I’m already having fun anticipating it. It’ll be fun while we are there. And then we’ll have fun recounting and remembering all the meaningful, humorous, and ridiculous things that happen on the trip. Even things that don’t seem that fun at the time can become fun as memories–like the life-threatening jellyfish attack I endured. (Okay, life-threatening is an exaggeration, but I had a visible scar for over a year. I had no idea a jellyfish could do that.)

Fun is not just fun in the moment it happens…unless you have end-stage dementia.

Dementia can steal part one and part three of fun. All that is left is the fun that happens in the moment. When our memory is compromised, we may not be able to anticipate or look forward to events. We may not remember that fun things are going to happen. And after we have fun, we may not remember the fun we had.

But what remains is the fun we have in the moment. When dementia takes away parts of us and parts of our experiences, what remains becomes even more important. The present moment becomes more (not less) valuable because it won’t become a memory for the person experiencing it.

I commonly hear people say something like, “Grandma won’t remember if we visited her anyway, so why should we bother?”

I’ve responded to this in different ways, but the best rebuttal came from a woman who was describing to me why it was so important to visit her mother even though her mother wouldn’t remember the visit.

“I had a first birthday party,” she told me. “I don’t remember it, but I’m sure I had a lot of fun at the time. And other people remember it. Even if I don’t remember it, it still had value. It wasn’t a waste of time.”

She went on to point out that we interact with babies even though they won’t remember it. No one says “I should go see my granddaughter who was born last week but I think I’ll wait until she’s old enough to remember the visit.”

It’s enough that the visit will be enjoyable in the moment and that we will remember it. Why is it so different with someone who had end-stage dementia? We like to make statements about how life is about making memories, but sometimes it just isn’t.

Anticipating and remembering fun is great. But when that’s not possible, having fun, connecting, and enjoying the moment is enough. And when it’s all you have, it’s all the more meaningful.