Alzheimer’s and the Artistic Mind
As an artist whose artistic mother also has Alzheimer’s, this movie hit home for me. It was like watching my own mother lose all her nouns, then her knowledge of interpreting nouns on a canvas, and finally her knowledge of self.
In this film, the mother’s sorrow and fear are mitigated by the son’s desire to hang out with her. I only hope his desire lasted beyond the making of the film. For the sake of all those with Alzheimer’s, I hope love lasts beyond the time the disease is an interesting artistic or scientific curiosity. I hope it lasts beyond the time a diseased person has anything at all to offer.
When dealing with Parkinson’s, sometimes one symptom can dictate behavior and end up causing a cascade of physical problems.
Symptom and consequence in point: hand tremors can lead to decreased liquid consumption (because the Parkinson’s patient is embarrassed to spill every time he drinks), and decreased liquid consumption can exacerbate constipation and possibly lead to impacted bowels in a Parkinson’s victim.
In dealing with Dad, we found that one solution to this cascading problem is a spill-proof sipping container. Dad used to spill everything on himself, the table, the floor. Now when his shaking is bad, we put all liquids in the spill-proof water bottle, and he is no longer embarrassed to drink.
The nice thing about the Camelbak water bottle is it’s sleek, sporty design which makes Dad feel like he fits in more with our physically active family.
So if you are having a hard time coming up with a Father’s Day gift for your Parkinson’s dad, this is my suggestion.
The other day my sister saw a note I had written on a sticky pad. It was a list of things I needed to do, one of them being to order a refill of Mom’s Seroquel. Except my sister read “Mom’s sequel” and thought I had written a book about Mom and was now working on a sequel. Not a far-fetched idea, as I’m always writing some book or other under the covers with a flashlight (so to speak).
Turns out I’m not writing a sequel about Mom.
Unless I’m writing it with my life.
In my last post I expressed fear that I might be following in my mother’s footsteps. Who wants to inherit Alzheimer’s? But the more I think about it, the more I would be proud to be called my mother’s sequel. I’m certain that anyone who knew Mom would give their right arm to be compared positively to her. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever known. The prayingest person I’ve ever known. The best cook, the best artist, the most humble…
I can remember a couple tizzy fits Mom threw right in the middle of menopause. But dang, other than that it’s hard to think of anything bad coming from Mom.
So I have to say that it is with great pride that I would love to be able to say “I am my mother’s sequel.”
In my research on Alzheimer’s and glucose metabolism, I ran across a fascinating article about the brain’s default system–that part of the brain that is affected in Alzheimer’s Disease; that part of the brain that hogs glucose like no other part of the brain.
In The Secret Life of the Brain, Douglas Fox brings together research on the default network beginning with Dr. Sokoloff who, in his attempt to find out why the brain uses so much glucose (20% of the body’s supply), discovered that the brain uses as much energy while “at rest” as it does while performing tasks.
Later, a neuroscientist named Marcus Reichle discovered a kind of “brain within the brain” that works its butt off when it’s supposedly in “idle mode.”
Raichle and Shulman published a paper in 2001 suggesting that they had stumbled onto a previously unrecognised “default mode” – a sort of internal game of solitaire which the brain turns to when unoccupied and sets aside when called on to do something else. This brain activity occurred largely in a cluster of regions arching through the midline of the brain, from front to back, which Raichle and Shulman dubbed the default network (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 98, p 676).
It was found that some parts of this network devoured 30 per cent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain. Since part of this default system is in constant communication with the hippocampus (which records every day memories), Reichler speculated that its function was to sort, evaluate, and categorize memories in such a way that would allow the brain to use the past as an “inner rehearsal” for considering future actions and choices.
Brilliant. Just when you think daydreaming is a waste of time, it turns out it’s crucial for living.
Raichle now believes that the default network is involved, selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective – whether they’re good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can.
In support of this idea, Raichle points out that the default network constantly chatters with the hippocampus. It also devours huge amounts of glucose, way out of proportion to the amount of oxygen it uses. Raichle believes that rather than burning this extra glucose for energy it uses it as a raw material for making the amino acids and neurotransmitters it needs to build and maintain synapses, the very stuff of memory. “It’s in those connections where most of the cost of running the brain is,” says Raichle.
Reichler later attented a lecture by an Alzheimer’s specialist and was shown a map of beta amyloid plaques (those clumps found in Alzheimer’s autopsies) in the brain. The picture looked exactly like the default network!
Raichle, Greicius and Buckner have since found that the default network’s pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. Half of people with memory problems go on to develop the disease, but which half? “Can we use what we’ve learned to provide insight into who’s at risk for Alzheimer’s?” says Buckner.
That got me thinking…
Maybe one reason we lose memories is that our lifestyle doesn’t allow for much rich idle time like when we would sit on the porch sipping sweet tea on a hot afternoon. So the default network can never do its work of sorting and categorizing memories, and consequently we lose them.
And if this is a problem with the present generation, how much moreso for the upcoming generation. We are consumed with having something to pay attention to all the time. Just look at TV screens these days: not only do you have the main screen, but there’s the pop-up ad for the “next show,” a caption for what’s going on on the screen, and a ticker at the bottom of the screen for what’s happening elsewhere.
Maybe part of the solution for AD is the “quiet space” to be incorporated in school, at work, and at home. Hmm, come to think of it, I offered this very solution in a comment to an article in Time Magazine back in 09 (Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out):
I predict that the twitterification of our society is going to lead to an exponential increase in early-onset Alzheimer’s. We’re increasing the rate of input to our brains and decreasing the time for processing information, and our brains are going to revolt. That, in turn, will lead to the next big industry: de-twitterification rooms where you can sit alone and unconnected, with nothing but a giant aquarium and a beanbag. -Marty
If you click on the picture at left, you'll hear the loveliest little story about a nursing home in Germany that decided to install a fake bus stop in front of their facility for patients to go to and "de-stress." Folks would go out to the bus stop thinking they'd get on a bus and go home. But after a few minutes of waiting, they'd forget why they were there and go back inside, no longer agitated and afraid.
So, if lying achieves a good end, is it OK?
Looking at it another way, is the aim of interaction to be correct or to be kind?
In the bus stop story, think about what it is the patient really wants when he waits for the bus. He wants home and family. But why? He wants these things because they mean acceptance and love.
So if the bus stop allows a patient to calm down enough for a staff member to have a soothing, friendly visit with them, is it not giving them what they were after in the first place? And is this not Truth?
This is the same rationale for communicating with Alzheimer's patients even when they are home with family. The point isn’t to constantly correct your loved one ("no, it’s not morning, it’s evening;" or, "no, my name isn’t Mary, it’s Marty"). We’re not here to elicit factual correctness from each other, but to honor each other as full-fledged beings created in the image of God—regardless to what extent we are broken.
And, no, I'm not a post-modernist saying there are no facts, or that facts are what we want them to be.
Just saying, facts aren't the point. Love is.
Mom has been pretty much without language for five years now. Three years ago she would occasionally call out “Ken!” (Dad’s name) once or twice a week, but other than that, her speech was a non-stop running chatter of “geri geri geri fica fica fica mao mao” and the like. Mostly two syllable experiments in sound. Ah. Also, occasionally–and as far back as 2 1/2 years ago, she would respond to the declaration “I love you” with “too too too too.” We wrapped ourselves in that response–a definite sign of comprehension and reciprocity.
Today we don’t even get the “too too too.” But we do get eye contact and a nod, which is just as good as sign of comprehension.
For all the times I’ve felt a thrill at the connection still possible with Mom via language, I didn’t have a picture of how thrilling it was for her to know that she knew something until one day–about 18 months ago–when I took her to the bathroom. We’d been having a very hard time getting Mom to urinate. She’d hold it for eight, twelve, eighteen hours. We massaged her, waited in the bathroom with her, gave her tons of liquid in hopes of getting her to release the contents of her bladder–to no avail.
One day I sat her down and begged her to go. “Mom, go potty. Let it out. Just let it out, ok?” She leaned over and made a shooing motion with her hand and repeated, “out?” I said, “yes, let it out.” She looked at the door, repeated the shooing motion (toward the door) and said “out” with the most excitement I’d seen from her in a long time. She was ecstatic at the small bit of comprehension she possessed at that moment. She knew the word “out!” She knew the word–it’s meaning–and it gave her significance.
I suppose it was akin to the feeling Helen Keller had at the comprehension of the word “water.” It opened up the world around her; gave her instant availability to connection with other human beings; empowered her to have a “self.”
I ache for Mom and her loss of language and all that has gone with it. But thanks to her, I am richer now that I know the power I possess with a vocabulary. Comprehension via language is such a huge gift (sorry to disagree, post-modernists)!
Now, if I can just stall the loss I already feel creeping in…
One thing Parkinson’s can’t take away from a man is all he has passed on in his lifetime. Here is Dad, rock-hounding Parkinson’s style. The fact that he can’t stand up on his own or kneel and claw through the dirt to get to the jasper or petrified wood doesn’t detract from the fact that he instilled the love of nature and science in his children. It’s in our blood now to visit all the national parks we can and to dig for fossils wherever there be beds.
He’s taught his children so many good things, and Parkinson’s can’t take that away from him.
The following describes the knowledge gained by Sharlene in the course of caring for both her parents with Alzheimer’s. It is not necessarily a reflection of my views, but I thought it good to publish the research of someone who has an insider’s view of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Sharlene Spalding is a naturopathic consultant in the village of Casco, ME. She is a former primary caregiver for two parents with AD. She holds a master’s degree in natural wellness. Sharlene is an excellent resource in natural healing and a hound dog when it comes to research. Because of what she knows now, she is committed to a pharmaceutical-free home that revolves around organic foods and herbs. You can visit her website at The Village Naturopath.
On Saturday, August 21, 2010, God took Dad home. God did not wait until we were ready for this. He waited until Heaven couldn’t stand Dad’s absence any longer.
I’m posting this video about how we deal with death in our current culture because I think our attitude of denial in the face of death needs to change. Considering my family’s immediate reaction of trying to revive Dad–even though he requested a DNR–I’m speaking from experience. Our natural tendency is to hold on as long as possible. But this isn’t necessarily the best for those we love.
Letting go is so stinking hard!!
All the more reason to think and plan ahead for the death of those you love.
The other night I attended an author’s reading of a first-time novel.
The main character in the novel is an immigrant computer programmer with terrible social skills trying to navigate his way around the American culture. His mistakes are endearing and a good mirror into the idiosyncrasies of American culture.
In the question and answer period of this reading, someone shot up their hand and asked if the main character suffered from Asperger’s Disease because of his mental brilliance and social ineptitude.
I think the author’s answer was something along the lines of “uh…” which mirrored my own reaction to the question. I’d smiled at the word Asperger’s and felt my stomach lurch at the word Disease. I’ve always thought of Asperger’s more as a cool color to be rather than a disease. Besides, why the need to label?
Why can’t we just accept a different package of assets and challenges in a person and enjoy their uniqueness rather than feel the need to cubbyhole folks into categories?
I just looked up the number of brain-related disorder labels and found a list of 50, among them “intermittent explosive disorder” which is basically the display of temper tantrums. Get real, folks!
What are labels & diagnoses? Something to shield other people from us as well as something to hide behind?
My recommendation for anyone suffering from excessive labeling (both giving and taking) is to read the book “You are Special” by Max Lucado. The interesting notion in this book is that positive labeling can be as harmful as negative labeling because it enslaves us to other people’s opinions. Freedom comes in checking in constantly with our Maker and knowing He loves us as we are.
Read and re-read and practice what you read.
Dare to be yourself.
Yesterday I came across Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem in Alice in Wonderland (you can download the whole book for free at Gutenberg).
I’ve always loved how Carroll made nonsense words sound like language. But what got me this time around was Alice’s response, and the parallel of that with how I feel about “talking” to Mom.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
The topic of fasting and Alzheimer’s has been on my mind lately because, well, Alzheimer’s is always on my mind and because recently a friend of mine got on this diet where you’re supposed to eat six small meals a day to trick your body into not storing fat.
Since intermittent fasting has been shown to slow body and brain aging, I wonder (the fat part aside) what this continual eating is doing to the brain.
From Psychology Today (2003):
It has been known for years that sharply restricting the calorie intake of laboratory animals increases their life span. But a new study by researchers from the National Institute on Aging found
Yesterday I finished reading Still Alice. I think the title is meant to be a loaded question. Can I, after losing all memory of others and self, still be considered to be myself? Am I still “me” if I don’t have a clue what that me is or was?
The fictional book answers the question affirmatively.
I found myself examining my perceptions of Mom–who obviously no longer knows herself–and thinking the conclusion was absolutely true. I still recognize Mom in this shell of a person. She still has the same mannerisms, exudes the same kind affection, displays the same funny reactions. She’s still Mom down to the core.
But not so much with Dad–a victim of Parkinson’s. It seems I recognize him less and less. But then, I suppose I’m holding a higher standard of “self” to Dad, giving that I’m assuming he’s more “there” than mom. If I were to strip him down to mannerisms alone, I would probably find him to be his old self too. It’s a tricky question.
At the very end of the novel, Alice has a moment of lucidy and says, “I miss myself.”
That statement struck me to the core. You know why? Because I miss being me too! There is this incredible longing inside me to be “more” or “better” or “fuller” or something. I fall way short of the me I want to be, and I long for (or miss) that. Yet I still want to be treated as though I were fully “me” even though I don’t meet my own standard for myself.
Why not, then, treat the Alzheimer’s victim as though they were fully themselves, regardless of how short they fall from the perfect version of that self?
Ultimately, our longing is for acceptance, love, safety. Let’s just make a pact to offer it unconditionally to each other regardless of where we are on this journey toward the perfect self.
Alzheimer’s and the Ego: the Power of No
John Thorndike’s The Last of His Mind is a work skinned in the devastating story of Alzheimer’s, but shows what an unexpected gift caregiving can be for a child who longs to understand the one who shaped so much of his own understanding of life and relationships.
In these pages, John Thorndike gives up the comforts of his normal life in Ohio to care for his father in the last year of his battle against Alzheimer’s. John takes this time to examine himself in the light of the two people who shaped him most—his proper, emotionally absent New England father and his passionate, dissatisfied mother. “No wonder I study my parents,” he says. “Within the compass of their lives, everything is foretold.”
More than anything, the author wants a peek at his father’s heart, but finds it impossible to reach through the shining armor that encases him. In the end, though, he finds that it’s not his father’s armor that shines, but his character. And in the end, the year of loneliness and frustration yields the sweetest of fruit: a softer, mended heart.
John Thorndike brings out the True by exposing the Fraud, and it’s contagious. I feel wholly exposed after reading this book, yet more able to forgive myself, to love Dad—imperfections and all, and to accept the inherently flawed but courageous effort we all make in loving those closest to us.
True, this book is about the beastliness of Alzheimer’s, but it should be read by anyone who hungers to know a parent and to find themselves healed in the acceptance of an imperfect knowledge.
- alzheimer's antipsychotics art award body-language book-review cancer caregiving causes coping cues cure death dementia diagnosis diet Dimebon disabilities drugs early-onset ego end-stages fear gadgets gut heredity humor images language lifestyle metabolism movies music parkinson's phenotype prevention progression research seniors slideshow stigma stress symptoms validation violence
- Chip Allen: Enjoyed your article about Khan Academy. I had a m...
- EHOB Inc: Hopefully other caregivers find some relief and hu...
- Kim: Oh Marty, that made my day. Thanks for posting it!...
- Marty D: Thank you for your thoughts, Kathryn. Now I'm curi...
- Kathryn: Hi, Your article is fascinating. I am caring for ...
- "Where to, Bud?" Early Onset Alzheimer's Blog - A thoughtful blog by a man with early onset Alzheimer’s
- Alzheimer's Reading Room - In it for the long run with Dotty
- Alzheimer's Research Forum - Targeting Breakthrough Research
- Annals of Neurology - Latest studies in neurology
- Changing Aging by Dr. Bill Thomas
- How to Live a Longer Life - Nutrition ideas and secrets on increasing longevity
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease - an international multidisciplinary journal with a mission to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment and psychology of Alzheimer’s
- Kris Bakowski's Blog on Early-Onset Alzheimer's - Kris is an active advocate for Alzheimer’s research
- Posit Science Blog - mind science
- The Dopamine Diaries - Lucid reflections on Dementia Care and Aging Well
- The Hope of Alzheimer's - Mary Kay Baum and sisters with early-onset speak out
- The Last of His Mind - Joe Thorndike, once the managing editor of Life and the founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, succumbs to Alzheimer’s
- The Myth of Alzheimer's - A doctor’s perspective on Alzheimer’s
- The Tangled Neuron - A Layperson Reports on Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s & Dementia
- The Brain’s Springboard to Creativity
- Citizen Science: Help Shed Light on the Brain-Gut Connection
- Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
- Living With The Jabberwocky
- Free Academy for The Aging Brain
- Water and The Aging Brain
- Best of the Web Nomination
- Bexarotene: Hope, Hype, Hooold It!
- Guest Post: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now
- The Brain: Divided We Conquer
- We are All Snowmen
- Does the Pursuit of Happiness Lead to Brain Aging?
- The Compulsion to Label
- The Myth of Alzheimer’s: Book Review