The Importance (Or Lack of Importance) of Memories in Dementialand

“Memories warm you up from the inside.”

This was written in fancy cursive on the wall of a memory care community that had invited me to do a staff in-service.

I’m not sure who decided this was a great quote to post on the wall in such a setting. I’d like to ask them about their reasoning. I’d probably start with something gentle like, “What the hell were you thinking?” (You know, because I’m so tactful with my words.)

What if a chemo infusion center decided to display a quote about how a woman’s hair is her glory? Or a school for the deaf posted a quote about the beauty of music?

I know the quote I saw at the memory care community was not intended to be cruel, but it almost seemed like a taunt.

I think a lot about the importance of memories. And what’s left when they are gone.

A couple weeks ago I sat down to talk to a delightful woman who has dementia. She was living in the memory care portion of an assisted living. She sat cradling a real-looking baby doll. She seemed to think the baby doll was a human baby, but she was adamant that it wasn’t her baby.

She wanted to tell me about her kids. She said she had three children. A few minutes later, she told me she had eight children. At one point, she mentioned that her mom was watching one across town so she could go to work. Then she told me all her kids were grown.

She asked me if I had kids. When I told her that I did not, she told me that she didn’t have any kids either. She was just too busy these days, so she had given them away to a librarian when she returned her library books.

The scattered and jumbled nature of this conversation was overshadowed by her warmth and kindness. It didn’t matter that what she said made little sense. I will take an illogical and positive conversation over a logical and negative one anytime. I could’ve talked to her all day.

Then she said something that struck me as ironic. And sad.

She put her hand on my hand, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “When you’re old like me, all you’ve got is your memories.”

There was something depressing about this woman stating that all she had was something that she really didn’t have at all.

So I started thinking about what she did have. She had just connected with me–a stranger–and we both smiled and laughed throughout the conversation. I’d never met her before, so our connection wasn’t based on memory. It was just two human beings connecting in a moment. This wasn’t dependent on history, and we made no plans for the future. It was about the “now.” She had that.

A staff member had shared with me that this woman was a joy to the entire facility. She didn’t need memory to make a positive difference to employees and fellow residents.

The same staff member later told me that this woman had two children but both had passed away as teenagers. When she first moved in, she often tearfully brought up her children who had died. In the past several months, she seemed to have forgotten that her children had passed away.

Dementia doesn’t give too many gifts, but this is one….People may lose the bad memories along with the good. (And if they do, please do not continually reintroduce those bad memories.)

Maybe she didn’t have her memories, and perhaps this had provided her some relief after years of struggling with the loss of her children. I’m not saying losing your memories is a good thing. It’s obviously not something I would wish for myself, my friends, or even my enemies. But if you have to lose your good memories, you should get to ditch those memories that cause you pain.

I recently came across the following quote:

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” –L.M. Montgomery

But what if we don’t remember it? Is it then lost?

I don’t believe it is. I don’t believe anything is ever lost–because it happened. And it shaped our life and the lives of those around us. Forgetting what happened doesn’t negate that.

There is a reason I am drawn to this field. It’s because people living with dementia have a lot to teach me.

I focus too much on the past. Did what I said at that important meeting come off as stupid? What happened to that girl that I was kind of mean to in the seventh grade? Why did I date that one guy for so long when I knew he didn’t value me?

I also focus too much on the future. How am I going to get that university report done on time? Will those wrinkles around my eyes get more pronounced in the next five years? What if I take my old jeans to Goodwill because I lost ten pounds but then I regain those ten pounds?

You know what I don’t focus on nearly enough? The present…the now…the in-the-moment. I can rarely be completely in the present. I have a long way to go in my efforts to enjoy the moment.

But sometimes I come across someone with dementia that reminds me that the present is a pretty good place to be. When you don’t recall your past and you don’t have the foresight to think about the future, you reside in the present. And sometimes I am amazed at the joy to be found there.

I should hang out in the present more often.

Maybe memories can warm you up from the inside, but so can a spontaneous, friendly conversation where two people are connected in the “now.” I can’t say memories aren’t important, but I am in awe at how much people still have to give when their memories fade.