Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
Yesterday a social worker came to the house to evaluate Dad for possible in-home care assistance. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience for Dad.
The list of questions issued were designed to find out exactly what Dad can and cannot do for himself. The fact that Dad can’t do much at all for himself is something we try not to throw in his face even as it happens. Every time Dad can’t sit in the chair correctly and a struggle ensues to find the right verbal or physical cue to help him do so, Dad’s self-esteem takes a dive. Every time he can’t find a certain room in the house… can’t tell time… etc. So when a list of questions comes along and lays out each and every one of his deficiencies in one sitting, piling them up in front of him like so much garbage to be hauled around, well, it would be an understatement to say it was humiliating.
The further we got into the questionnaire, the more Dad’s countenance fell. It got to the point that I let Dad tell the social worker that he had no problem doing x or y or z, even though I knew the truth.
We ended up somewhere between the truth and Dad’s dignity, honoring neither.
At the very end, this wise social worker asked a question that was clearly not on the list. She asked, “Do you like to fish?”
You could see the dark cloud lift from over Dad’s beaten-down self! A tiny bit of affirmation in the midst of all that pummeling! Never mind that Dad can’t do it anymore; the question at least allowed him the pleasure of showing a positive side of himself. For once, he got to answer a very truthful “yes!”
And that made me wonder: why can’t we–in the pursuit of scientific correctness–remember the spirit of a man? Why can’t we sprinkle questionnaires with bits of affirmation for the sake of dignity alone? Would it hurt science or government to ask “what’s one of your favorite books?” to a woman applying for food stamps? Or “what superpowers would you most like to have?” to a veteran seeking disability assistance? Shoot, while I’m at it, can we change the the category from “seniors and people with disabilties” to “seniors and people with abilities”? There are always things we can still do; things we still like; things we still dream about.
Just stuff I wonder.
And you? Do you have any beef with questionnaires?
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.
Here’s what happened: I’m not a “from scratch” web coder, so I installed what’s called a “theme” for my niece’s website and used it as a springboard to create a look that would capture her life and style.
A lot of work goes into designing the look of a website, but it has to pale in comparison to all the work that goes into creating themes, or “platforms” on which creative designs are based. By the time I get my hands on designing a website, all the hard prep work has been done, and I’m presented with a lovely spring board that allows me to jump and flip and fly wherever my creative juices lead.
As I was sitting listening to our various conversations around the table, something struck me as different this year. We’re all hovering around 50—give or take a couple years—and the aging process is beginning to take a more prominent seat at the table. Not only do conversation topics start with the premise of aging: declining health, the cost of health insurance, etc, but it seems that no matter what the topic, it eventually touches on something to do with aging.
Here is something frustrating about clinical trials of Alzheimer’s drugs: the FDA requires that such trials show an almost immediate improvement in memory tests of participants in order for the drug to get approval, disregarding improvement in other symptoms, and consequently derailing a possible cure for this dreaded disease.
Here is why I think there is an inherent problem with this guideline:
If you go the the Alzheimer’s Association website and take the interactive tour of a brain with Alzheimer’s (a fantastic tool!), you will notice that there is a general pattern to the progression of Alzheimer’s and its accompanying symptoms. Specifically, looking at slide 13 you will see that the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s is the inner core where the hippocampus resides—that part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. From there, damage spreads outwards to the cortex of the various lobes. As the second image in slide 13 shows, the Frontal Cortex is affected in mid stages of Alzheimer’s. This area is responsible for attention, social skills and intelligence (or wit). It is associated with “personality.”
Now, if an effective drug for Alzheimer’s were to be developed, you would expect to see the least damaged areas respond first, followed by the most heavily damaged areas.
Such were the preliminary results of the clinical trial of Dimebon. In reading the various anecdotal accounts of the Dimebon trial (see Bob DeMarco’s piece on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room), the results seemed to show precisely this initial response: Alzheimer’s sufferers reported increased alertness, social skills, and wit. Here is a sample quote from the various testimonials:
The major drug companies are focusing on memory. Are they after the right target? I’ll tell you this, in weeks 6 through 18 in the Dimebon clinical trial my mother was more engaged with me, more aware of her surroundings, more interesting, and more like her “old” self then she had been in six years.
The least damaged areas of the brain were affected in the 12-week trial! Then the trial was stopped because the inner (most damaged) area of the brain showed no marked improvement.
Would it not make sense to glean from the trial that a logical reverse course of the disease was set in motion and to continue it to see if the pattern held?
Pfizer et al, could you give us another 12 weeks when studying Alzheimer’s please?!
[Note: this analysis is mine alone. It may not be true that the least affected areas would show improvement first]
On the way back from the errand, I was no longer me but a dim-witten twenty-something boy, and the SUV was now a semi truck. I climbed into the truck and found that it was in such a tight spot that it would be nearly impossible to get the monster out and down the alley onto the street. Nevertheless, I managed.
From there on, driving home was a brink-of-disaster experience. Sometimes the truck would jacknife and tilt over and I would dangle from the window and the truck would almost fall on top of me. But it would always right itself just in time to not kill me.
I kind of lost my way home, and at one point drove the truck into a military building. Somehow the folks there mistook me for a war hero and ordered a police escort to get me home. I was too dim-witted to correct them.
I drove home never quite feeling in control, yet chortling the whole way—the cops behind me scratching their heads as they swerved to follow. I arrived home and STILL no one would act on the fact that I was not OK.
When I awoke this morning I had to laugh at my mind’s lack of subtlety. That definitely sums up life right now. This caregiving business feels like you are always on the cusp of something that could kill but ends up leaving you alive. Barely.
I especially got a kick out of the war hero thing—a commentary on everyone always saying “You two sure are wonderful. You are going to get huge rewards in Heaven!”Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
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
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.
e all know, even without reading research papers, that music has emotional benefit: it can excite and calm and induce a wonderfully cathartic weeping session. This applies whether you’re healthy or sick; whether you have Parkinson’s or autism or Alzheimer’s.
But studies have found that music can also be of cognitive benefit: it helps people remember things better.
What exactly does this mean, and what specifically does it mean for an Alzheimer’s patient? Does it mean that if you play the oldies station in the background all the time, your Mom will wake up one day and remember everything again?
Let’s look at the evidence:
First of all, "music" is a pretty general term. Are we talking about singing? Playing a guitar? Listening to Mozart? Listening to Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational jazz? Believe it or not, these are all different things.
According to a study reported by Time Magazine,("Music on the Brain")
Different networks of neurons are activated [in the brain], depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.
In another study, quoted in Neuroscience for Kids,
researchers have recorded neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. During this study, awake patients heard either a song by Mozart, a folk song or the theme from "Miami Vice". These different kinds of music had different effects on the neurons in the temporal lobe.
Also, from Time'“Music on the Brain”
Experimental Audiology in Germany has shown that intensive practice of an instrument leads to discernible enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter most closely associated with higher brain function.
As you can see, different music affects different parts of the normal brain in different ways.
People are always studying the music-brain connection, trying to understand the mystery of it. There was a particular study done in 1993 that tried to see if music affected memory. The researchers used a song by Mozart for their experiment, and their results seemed to show that this composer’s music improved test-taking. This became widely known as The Mozart Effect, and people started playing Mozart to their unborn babies thinking it would give them a head start in learning.
Though later studies failed to duplicate the Mozart Effect (perhaps the only real effect is that Mozart helps relax the body right before a test), that original research sparked further research into music-as-memory-aid. A recent study, for example, found that Alzheimer’s patients can remember new information if it is sung to them much better than if it is spoken (as opposed to healthy people who can remember it equally well when sung as opposed to spoken).
We also know without reading studies that music helps trigger old memories. For example, when I hear the song "Dust in the Wind," I am immediately transported back to our family van as we drove across the country in 1977. I remember my oldest sister introducing this song to me, and how it resonated with the angst of my teenage years, etc. A whole cascade of memories brought on by a single song.
In a study reported by the Telegraph in 2009, researchers found that this recall effect is due to the fact that music is processed in the same area of the brain that forms vivid memories. They furthermore found that such memories appear to be immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And this could lead to a unique kind of therapy:
Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, …making a "soundtrack of someone’s life" before their mind is too damaged, and playing it back to them could help form a resistance to the disease.
Love the idea! Plus I have a variation on this idea from watching this next video of Bobby McFerrin (at a conference called "Notes and Neurons"), and from observing Mom as I play the piano. First, here’s Bobby:
What Bobby is doing here is getting the mind to go in a familiar direction (the pentatonic scale), then leaving an auditory blank and letting the mind fill it in. I mean, aside from jumping around, that's what he's doing. He’s giving the mind a puzzle to solve. He’s making the mind work. And working the mind is better than not working the mind if you want to keep it.
The next part of my idea came from playing the piano for Mom and watching her reaction. You should know Mom hasn’t spoken but a few words in a couple years, and she no longer sings intelligible tunes. You should also know that I don't play the piano. I used to when I was seven, but now my playing is reduced to guessing the notes with my right hand. I can play fast enough for the tune to be recognizable. Barely. Fortunately for Mom, the tune is always a hymn—something she is very familiar with. Unfortunately for Mom, I mangle the tune. And that's where the puzzle comes in.
See, when my finger's can't find the right note, Mom gets exasperated and sings it out loud to help me find the dang thing. I'm even wondering if this puzzle-solving exercise is a factor in Mom's recent awakening.
So here is my variation on the soundtrack idea. Try this exercise (for an Alzheimer’s patient) with the following video clip:
Play it once. It will probably be familiar to the listener already, but there are enough repetitions in this piece that parts of it will quickly become familiar if they aren’t already. Play the video again, but pause the video every so often. There are a ton of repeated theme snippets. Pause before a theme is repeated and see if the listener is prompted to supply the missing piece. If they do, you've got a good puzzle to use.
Then, if you do this with that "Life Playlist", you should be able to double the benefit in fighting that Alzheimer’s monster.
Music and Caregiving—Pandora to the Rescue
Alzheimer’s and Music: Stimulating the Brain into Action
Posit Science Blog, Your Brain on Jazz
American Music Conference, Music and the Brain
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.
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.”
The first thing you have to know about Mom is that she is the biggest sweetheart on the planet. She has always said “yes” to anyone who asked her for a favor or a meal or a ride or even cash. We used to berate her over some of these decisions. “Mom, you’re just enabling them to go get drunk,” or whatever. We’d rather keep our boundaries intact. Keep safe. Not Mom. She’d rather “do onto others” as Jesus wanted her to do–and let Jesus take care of punishment if the recipient abused the gift.
With that in mind, it puzzles me that these days, the word most frequently pulled out of her tiny residual vocabulary (5-10 words at present) is the word “no.”
“Mom, shall we get up?”
“Mom, isn’t this music pretty?”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
Here’s the curious part. Her body language still says “yes.” So why the verbal “no”?
I’m thinking that this knee-jerk negation is her last recourse to individuality. Having lost most of what makes her a person, she is resorting to negation as a way to distinguish herself from others.
Think about it. “Yes” blends us into other people. It’s a unifying word. It accepts. It serves. It hugs and becomes one with the other.
“No” on the other hand, puts up a wall between the self and the other. It says, I am me and you are you and it’s going to stop there.
It’s Mom’s only way, I believe, to retain a feeling of self.
And that revelation changes how I look at the world. You wonder why some people just can’t play nice in the world arena; why they have to say “no” to constructive engagement; why they have to strap bombs around themselves and “no” themselves and other people into oblivion.
Perhaps it’s because those people feel that a “yes” will blend them into the will of the other–a will that is unacceptable to their idea of a healthy self. A “no,” they feel, is the only way they’ll be seen.
Do you see what I’m saying? The ego’s boundaries collapse under yes. “No” is the last bastion of the tormented ego.
The U.K. recently decided that Aricept and other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs can be prescribed for mild Alzheimer’s cases (in addition to moderate cases. See article U.K. Reverses Stance On Alzheimer’s Drugs NICE is now recommending that three drugs known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors—Aricept from Pfizer Inc. and Eisai Co.; Reminyl from Shire PLC; and Exelon from Novartis AG—be considered for use in patients with “mild” forms of Alzheimer’s, in addition to the patients with “moderate” forms of Alzheimer’s for whom NICE previously endorsed the drugs.). The more obvious reason is that these drugs should be getting cheaper once their patents expire, and therefore easier on the state’s prescription coverage budget. The less obvious reason is the relative ignorance Brits have regarding the sport of baseball.
First, you have to know how neurons and neurotransmitters work. Here is a short animation that shows how neurotransmitters work in the brain:
The cycle is a fantastically efficient one. Neurotransmitters are shocked into action, released into the synapse where they interact with receptors on the other side of the synapse, then swept up to make room for the next wave of neurotransmitters.
In Alzheimer’s, the favorite neurotransmitter tagetted by drug companies is acetylcholine because it is crucial for the formation of new memories. In the Alzheimer’s brain, there is an increasing shortage of acetylcholine, making it harder and harder for the brain to form new memories. The enzyme that recycles acetylcholine is acetylcholinesterase. What Aricept (an acetycholinesterase inhibitor) does is inhibit this recycling process, so the neurotransmitters hang around longer in the synapse and interact more often with memory-forming receptors.
Here is a video of a different neurotransmitter (serotonin) and its recycling inhibitor. It’s a good picture of the process that takes place with acetylcholine and acetycholinesterase inhibitors:
All of this is easier for Americans to grasp, because it can be compared to baseball: in baseball, players are stored in the dugout, called into action on the field, then recycled back into the dugout when their action is no longer called for.
Suppose that a team were to lose all but four of its players. Someone would have to block the dugout so the players wouldn’t sit back on the bench but rather take up the bat once more.
The players are the acetylcholine, the rule that sends them back into the dugout is the acetycholinesterase, and the person blocking the dugout when there is a shortage of players is the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
This also, by the way, illustrates why Aricept et al eventually fail: the four players get tired of playing the whole game all season long and quit.
Someone must have finally explained baseball to the Brits.
The other night I watched the movie Limitless. I thought it was a typical heart-pounding thriller with a touch of fantasy—in this case about a guy who discovers a drug that turns him into a genius. I thought the plot was moving toward the inevitable crash he would suffer when his supply ran out (as happened to everyone else in the movie whose supply ran out).
Then came the twist at the very end that made me laugh out loud. OMG, what Pretty Woman was to prostitutes, Limitless is to drug addicts and the whole drug industry.
If you’re smart enough, it says, you can make the perfect brain drug; you can take the last dose of the perfect drug to a lab and figure out how to reverse engineer and reproduce it; and you can figure out how to tweak it downwards in a perfectly safe manner (all within very short time periods); then you can wean yourself from a phenomenally addictive drug; and finally, you can train your brain to retain all the benefits of said drug once you have weaned yourself off it.
HA HA HA HA HA.
I think the whole problem I have with the drug industry is that, except in this extreme pharmacofantasy, it is additive rather than subtractive. You add one drug to treat a condition, then you add another to deal with the side effects of the first drug, then you add an nth drug to deal with the side effects of the combination of all the previous drugs.
Why not start with subtraction?
What are we injesting that we should cut out? Sugar? Preservatives? Smoke? Alcohol? Pesticides?
How often/much are we eating that we should cut back? Are we inhibiting certain enzymes—such as the anti-aging SIRT1—that only activate during fasting hours?
Maybe less is more?
Let’s start by removing the offending substances first, because once you start adding, it’s not you who benefit. It’s the industry that initially did have your brain in mind but now needs you to need them more and more.
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