A couple days ago we had a March Babies birthday party here at the house. It’s a tradition my sister started a few years ago because so many of her friends have birthdays in March, and this is a great way to kill a bunch of birds with one shotgun. As I was sitting listening […]
More on the brain’s default network: The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less […]
Yesterday I asked my sister—who is visiting from abroad—what signs of Alzheimer’s she sees in herself. She rattled off some memory problems such as forgetting names of acquaintances or not being able to place someone’s face when out of context. Nothing particularly Alzheimersy, just decreased mental sharpness. She then asked me if I was experiencing […]
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 […]
Deep In The Brain is a cerebral self-examination written by a philosophy professor who was riding the top of a success wave when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Talk about the relationship between mind and brain! Here is one who, thanks to his training, steps outside himself to make an objective assessment of his behavior […]
Today the world has been given the very bad news that there is nothing that can help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. The disease is a thief and a murderer, and nothing can stand in its way.
I say the folks who did these studies need to study Mom. Round out the evidence of all that hopeless progression with a little taste of surprising regression.
I wrote the rest of this post a week ago, but only got around to publishing it today:
Mom is going backwards. She’s regressing, it seems to us, and that’s a good thing when you have Alzheimer’s.
How? What? When? Where? Why? Is it wishful thinking that we’re seeing marked improvement in Mom’s cognition, or is this real?
Exactly what I’m asking myself these days. Granted, being a highly motivated observer may make my observations suspect, but I feel it would be irresponsible not to report what appears to be clear evidence of improvement in Mom’s condition. It would be irresponsible of you not to suspect my findings, but dumb not to take a look at all.
So here goes.
A few weeks ago, we who have been taking care of (or been around) Mom for the past three years noticed that we were telling people Mom was having a good month. We were used to telling people that Mom was “having a good day” every now and then. A good day once a week was a good thing. But the entire month of March of this year seemed to be “a good day.” It came to the point that we were scratching our heads saying, “Hmm. Maybe Mom doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe this was all stress, and now that she’s been de-stressed for three years, she’s coming back.”
So I decided to take inventory of the new signs of cognition (and physical improvement) coming from Mom these days. What exactly is she doing that she wasn’t doing before? This is what I have:
- Mom has gained weight. Exactly a year ago Mom weighed 85 pounds and was bed-ridden with pneumonia. Hospice pronounced her a week from the grave. Today Mom weighs 95.5 pounds. No sign of physical sickness (OK, an occasional night fever and drippy nose).
- Mom sucks from a straw. For the longest time, we were having to “prime the pump” to get Mom to suck from a straw. A year ago, when we put a straw in her mouth, nothing would happen. So we’d plug the straw with our finger, then release the contents into her mouth, and, voila, she’d start sucking. Now Mom sucks as soon as the straw hits her lips.
- Mom opens her mouth at the sight of food. Again, for the longest time we’d just get a pleasant stare when we lifted a fork to her mouth. Two years ago, it would take us a good hour and a half to get through breakfast because it was only one time out of ten that Mom’s lips would part when we brought food to her mouth. Now, six-seven times out of ten, her mouth opens like a baby bird’s. Breakfast time has been cut in half.
- Mom swallows. Up until (this is where I wish I’d kept an exact diary) about four months ago, Mom had a permanent sore on the right side of her mouth. This was caused by the fact that Mom leans to the right when she sleeps, and food that remained in her mouth (because she wasn’t aware enough to swallow) dribbled out and ate at her skin. No matter how well we brushed her teeth and how much Vaseline we slathered around her lips, the sore was there off and on for the last three years until–a few months ago. The sore has not returned.
- Mom watches TV now. Meaning, she actually turns to it, focuses on it, and laughs on cue–sometimes for a 10-15 minute stretch. This hasn’t happened at all in the past three years until this “awakening.”
- Mom stops at the photo gallery in the hallway, looks at individual family photos and “comments.” For the past three years we’ve been walking through the hallway with Mom–past a 4 foot x 4 foot photo gallery–occasionally stopping to show Mom the family photos in hopes of getting a response. She wouldn’t even look where we were pointing. And if she focused at all, it would just as likely be on a knot in the wood frame as on a photo. Now Mom takes the initiative to stop and look from frame to frame, pointing, jabbering, looking at us and back at the photos. Sometimes getting teary-eyed at our description of the photos.
- Mom is using sentences. I wrote in a previous post that Mom’s language consists almost entirely of two syllable experiments in sound with an occasional word thrown in. We used to get so excited when she uttered a word that we’d call a family member and share the big news. In the past couple weeks, Mom has used short sentences. Like three days ago when I put her to bed, I said, “Mom, I love you.” She nodded and said, “For me, for me, for me too too.” The next morning at breakfast I tried to give her some juice while she was still chewing on her eggs and she shoved my hand aside and said “Put it down down.” I put her down for a nap in the afternoon, put on some Vivaldi, and did a farcical ballet dance (a la BodyVox). She nodded and said, “Yes. I do too too too.” Then that evening when I tried to give her her Seroquel (ground up in some juice), she shook her head. I kept bringing the juice to her mouth, and in exasperation she said, “Tsk! What what what do you do?” (Translation, “cut it out!”).
Four sentences in two days! Yesterday was a quiet day for Mom. No miraculous signs of anything. I’m dying to report more on this healing process, but Mom is not a science project, and I have to remember that she is worth all my love no matter what direction her mind and body take.
But I do think it’s worth mentioning that something has happened to Mom that has sent this Alzheimer’s into some sort of retreat. There is more than death taking place in her brain. Somewhere, somehow, regeneration is taking place as well.
Have any of you had the experience of watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s have a good month? I know Bob DeMarco recently reported an extraordinary event with his mother Dotty. Huge “regressive” step.
Next question will be, what could be causing these amazing regressions? We may have to rely on each other–the caregivers–to find the answer rather than on lab tests alone.
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]
This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about Parkinson’s here. If I write about Parkinson’s, it’ll be about how it’s affecting Dad. And if I tell you the things this disease makes Dad do, you won’t have a pretty picture of Dad. And that ain’t fair.
Here’s just a little, white example. A couple days ago Dad had to go to the bathroom. He asked what direction the bathroom was, and I pointed it out. He walked to the bathroom door, then asked me again where the bathroom was. I told him he was standing at the bathroom door. He said, “And now what?” I explained that he had to walk over to the toilet. He was standing four feet from the toilet and asked, “Where?” I put pressure on his back and gently led him to the toilet. He said, “And now?”
I had to help him through the whole process.
The concept “how to back up” seems to be the biggest obstacle his brain has to overcome. He can’t figure out how to back up to the toilet before sitting, or once he’s in a chair, how to back up from the edge. The same when he goes to bed.
My sister and I try “scoot back, Dad.” He scoots forward even though he’s already on the edge of whatever. We try changing the cue. “Put your back here” (while patting the back of the chair). Nothing. “Lift your bottom and move it back.” Nothing. Yesterday I tried switching languages. I said, “Put your butt in reverse” in Portuguese. He couldn’t do it, but he did double over laughing. And that’s a huge gift.
But these gifts are hard to come by. So I probably won’t write much about Dad and his Parkinson’s. I’d rather you see the adventurous man who loaded up his wife and eight kids in a van and drove from New York to Bolivia in 1966. This man taught us all kinds of good things about nature and God, and I’d rather not leave you with a highly unbalanced picture of who he is.
The Alzheimer’s Research Paradigm
If you’ve every studied philosophy of science, you’ll recognize that current research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease is battling paradigms. The funny thing is, the Alzheimer’s field hasn’t even reached the level of robust theory, yet there is strife in the ranks of researchers fighting over the direction inquiry should take:
“Kill the amyloid plaque!”
“No, viva le beta amyloid!”
“Forget amyloid. It takes tau to tangle.”
“Ha! The biomarker emperor has no clothes!”
“Wait. Isn’t it all about insulin resistance?”
“Nix all the above. Just get quality sleep, and you’ll be fine.”
If you think this is funny, these basic statistics will sober you up:
* As of 2010, there are 5.4 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s
* Almost half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s
* When the baby boomers come of Alzheimer’s age, the costs of care for this disease alone will cripple Medicare and Medicaid
* Federal funding for research into a cure is dropping fast
* YOU will be paying for either your own care or for that of a loved one if a cure is not found. And YOU will either be grossly neglected when this disease hits you, or you will die the slow death of stress from caregiving for someone else.
Bottom line: research into Alzheimer’s—its cause(s), treatment, and cure—is alarmingly urgent and terribly underfunded.
There are plenty of people out there who believe we shouldn’t put money into research at all, because so far nothing has been found to stay the course of “Alzheimer’s” dementia, and the whole drug industry is just a ploy to line the pockets of the pharmaceutical fat cats. If you’re in that group, you can stop reading this now. If, however, you would really like to see your Mom or Dad or Yourself able to have a meaningful conversation with your loved ones and know whom you’re talking to—hopefully for the rest of your life—read on, because the question isn’t whether or not to research. The question is where do we put our research dollars?
Not a simple answer when you consider that the reigning paradigm for Alzheimer’s research is serious question.
Let me explain with recent findings from my own readings:
A couple weeks ago I attended a Cure Alzheimer’s Fund webinar presented by Dr. Rudy Tanzi (of Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease) on Alzheimer’s research and drug development.
Beta Amyloid: Clues From Our Genes
Dr. Tanzi’s group is in the “clues from our genes” pool (looking at the genes as a starting point rather than, say, looking at diet first). The dominant belief in this pool up until recently is that beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain, followed always by tau tangles, are the two main biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease. That is, where there is Alzheimer’s, there is an overabundance of beta amyloid plaque and destruction caused by tau in the brain. Also, a higher load of plaque correlates with a higher degree of dementia (see slide from webinar). Plus, as this accumulation progresses and moves to different parts of the brain, there is a parallel manifestation of symptoms.
The connection seems pretty obvious. And Dr. Tanzi certainly has the credentials: back in the 80’s when he was studying Down’s Syndrome, he realized they had isolated the gene responsible for amyloid “plaque” deposits in the brain, and—given that all Down’s Syndrome sufferers end up with Alzheimer’s—thought to make a link between this gene and other cases of Alzheimer’s. From there it was one success after another, with Dr. Tanzi participating in the discovery of three of the four known gene mutations causing early-onset Alzheimer’s (these are the genes that guarantee you will get Alzheimer’s). Granted, early-onset AD accounts for only 5% of Alzheimer’s cases, but it does give weight to the conviction that Alzheimer’s has a genetic link. More recent studies looking at family history suggest that up to 80% of Alzheimer’s cases are genetically influenced (see slide from Tanzi’s presentation).
The presentation is convincing enough until you start reading the commentary in the field and start learning that current direction of research into the causes of Alzheimer’s is highly questioned.
Researchers coming on the scene today, for example, would argue that the plaque theory is circular reasoning. You can’t say that plaque leads to Alzheimer’s if you first define Alzheimer’s as “dementia with plaque.” And when your theory states that plaque accumulation leads to Alzheimer’s, the automatic null hypothesis is that where there is plaque (in copious amounts) you will always find dementia, and when plaque is cleared, dementia will go away.
But this has not born out. It is now known that “roughly one-third of all elderly adults have such plaques in their brains yet function normally.” It has also been proven that the elimination of beta amyloid plaque (achieved by the “Alzheimer’s vaccine”) does not cure dementia.
Thus the paradigm shake-up. Why continue with the biomarker research when the facts don’t bear an airtight connection? Is the “clues from our genes” group too heavily invested financially and psychologically in this line of research (as some suggest) to give it up as dead?
Dr. Tanzi responds to these fears in his recent presentation. He didn’t use the word per se, but nuance was the main come-back. All theories undergo refinement, and this plaque-causes-dementia theory is no exception. Looking at the genes may have lead to wrong conclusions in the past, but there are still some pretty interesting clues to follow going forward.
Here is a crude rendition of the protein-level pathology in Alzheimer’s:
Beta amyloid (Aβ) is cut off from its precursor protein; Aβ links to other ab in small clusters; Aβ kills nerve synapses; Aβ accumulates into plaques
For the past twenty years, research has focused on improving the symptoms of dementia by eliminating the final clusters of beta amyloid (plaques). Looking at the little diagram above, different drugs targeted the beta amyloid at different points on the linear progression toward plaque: Flurizan targeted the process that snipped the Aβ off its precursor protein; Alzemed tried to block the aggregation of Aβ; Dimebon was designed to protect the neurons from Aβ; one drug successfully immunized the brain against Aβ (resulting in clearance of plaque from the brain, inflammation in the brain, and progressive dementia); and finally, drugs were developed (Aricept and Namenda) to act at the symptomatic level.
None has had any significant effect on the brain’s function in memory tests.
Tanzi’s response? Perhaps the reason drug trials fail is that the potency of the drug is off—either too weak or too strong—and funding for a subsequent trial is cut off. Or perhaps researchers need to stare at the diagram a little longer and find out whether beta amyloid needs to be left to do some mission, then cleared before it wreaks havoc on the synapses.
Which is exactly what happened with Dr. Tanzi—a little stroll through the lab, a light-bulb moment, and Tanzi discovers that beta amyloid kills bacteria and yeast like nobody’s business. Beta amyloid is a good guy? The plaques themselves are just “a field of bullets” left over from some major battle?
Definitely worth an investigation. A new direction.
To Fund Or Not to Fund
So it turns out that looking at clues from the genes is not a paralyzing avenue of research after all. Is the paradigm really dead, or just needing refinement? In the new direction of Alzheimer’s research, Dr. Tanzi’s findings have lead to a more recent drug (PBT2) that takes the “antibiotic” role of beta amyloid into account as it tries to clear its toxic leftovers. Do we pull the plug on funding just when the story is getting really interesting?
The competition out there is fierce. You would think from some of the stinging accusations aimed at the “old school” research that funding for groups such as Tanzi’s should be questioned. Yet, as the webinar pointed out, “the vast majority of our knowledge about AD and AD drug discovery has been based on studies of the four known AD genes over the past two decades.” That’s old school success.
On the down side, “about 70% of AD genetics is unexplained by the four known AD genes.” On the further down side, it’s going to take A LOT of funding to find the genetic culprits for the rest of Alzheimer’s cases. And genetics is still only one of several approaches to studying this disease! (Besides, paradigms don’t die until a better one supersedes it, and there is no airtight theory out there yet).
Do we put all our eggs in one basket? What if there aren’t enough eggs to spread around to the different baskets?
Frankly, I don’t know the answer to this question.
There are a couple good reasons I think the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund group is worth supporting, though. One reason is the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund website itself. The Internet has plenty of faults, but it also has the advantage of open criticism. If you look at the comments sections of one of the papers put out by Tanzi’s group on the Alzheimer’s Forum, you’ll see an open debate. It’s free collaboration. It’s crowdsourcing at its best. I think it multiplies the value of your funding dollar.
Another reason is that I’ve suspected my own mother’s caseStay tuned for a post on this topic to be of possible bacterial/fungal origin and am dying to see what this group finds in their new line of research. The only thing I fear is the psychological barrier to this new approach.
A Taboo Research Project?
To be specific: the two agents being considered by Tanzi’s group as possible aggressors in the beta amyloid battle are Chlamydia and Candida Albicans. But looking at Candida Albicans as a possible cause of anything is TABOO in mainstream medicine. Just browse the comments section of a recent article in the New York Times about Candida Albicans, and you’ll see what I mean.
Will Tanzi’s group have the courage to fight all the enemies of research at the same time: tainted motives (the desire for personal glory), psychological entrapment (continuing in a line of research simply because it’s been going on for so long), and mainstream opinion about what is acceptable research (we do not look at X)?
I guess it’s going to take a lot of money to find out. Which brings us back to the basket issue.
Do we have to duplicate Alzheimer’s research at the Federal and State levels? The state of Texas, for example (being one of the top three states that will go broke paying for Alzheimer’s care in the future), is spreading its research egg money into several baskets:
* Prevention and Brain Health
* Disease Management
Why repeat this with every state, plus private groups on the side? Is there a way to get more collaboration between research groups? The well of needed funding is infinitely deep, so why are we digging multiple wells?
I guess part of the answer is that individual motivation for research (even if it is for personal glory) is the strongest kind you can find, and therefore the best engine for finding a cure. And likewise, education plus individual conviction will drive donations. There is certainly enough information available at one’s fingertips to give no one who is interested in a cure an excuse to sit on the sidelines!
So what will you do?
Because where there is a will, there will be a way to end the increasingly long goodbye.
For further reference:
Beta-Amyloid: An Antibiotic? (with a slew of interesting comments)
Alzheimer’s Brain Tangles Offer Clue To Worsening
Alzheimer’s Disease: No End to Dementia
New Potential Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease Detected
Alzheimer’s Scary Link to Diabetes
Follow the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride journal
An video report on several intriguing theories of Alzheimer’s.
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
Today a nice physical therapist came to assess a treatment program for Dad—to help him regain his balance and mobility and in so doing help him milk the summer ahead of us.
A couple hours later, while sitting at the table Dad asked me in an unusually clear voice, "What's the agenda?"
I looked up from the computer, slid my glasses down, and asked back, "Agenda for your physical therapy?"
"Agenda for life?" (I thought I’d go for the gusto).
"Yes." He smiled.
"Ah. Well. The agenda for life is to live more fully. You are going to get back to being more fully you. We are going to visit the local museum, go see the natural wonders around us, go to the big city to check out the OMSI exhibit."
He smiled more broadly. We're on the right track.
Shoot, this Parkinson's is going to be a nuisance, but we are going to live one shaky bite, one shuffling step, one tough lesson, one adventurous ride, one grateful day at a time.
Another thing I got from Oliver Sacks’ book was a new notion of the power of music in dealing with dementia. My previous post on music and Alzheimer’s dealt exclusively with the notion of music as a memory stimulant. But Sacks’ book made me realize that music can be used as a tool to organize thought and action in the present—in the midst of neurological damage.
Yesterday as I lay down for a recuperative nap, I listened to a Scarlatti sonata in the background, and immediately got a visual sense of what goes on in the brain when music is played. The first picture that came to mind was an animation of DNA transcription: that funny little zipper head that makes a perfect copy of your DNA as it unzips the double helix. Nibble, nibble, nibble, copy, copy, copy. Then I saw Scarlatti’s sonata as doing the opposite with my thoughts: grabbing all the randomness in my mind and knitting it into a useful strand, or, if you want to be more esoteric, turning it into functional narrative.
In Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the first clinical case is of a man who had lost all “sense of familiarity:” he could not recognize faces, body parts, food, clothing. Sacks wondered how the man (also a music professor) could function with this neurological deficit, so he went to visit him in his own home. It turned out the man had a very musical brain, and he functioned by humming a tune as he went about his daily business. He could eat as long as he sang, but if interrupted, would no longer recognize his food and would stop eating. He could dress by the same means. His wife would set out his clothes for the day, and he would only recognize them as clothes and dress himself once he started singing! His musical brain was compensating for his lost sense of recognition.
And now I remember a funny little entry by Bob Demarco on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room that is seriously brilliant. He talks about using music to stimulate his mother into action:
My sister was shocked when I told her on the phone that I finally “convinced” my mother to drink prune juice after years of trying and failure. Joanne was here and saw my mother refusing to drink and calling the prune juice poison. It was only after I introduced the “prune juice song” that my mother starting drinking the juice every day and the dreaded Poop-E problem was solved.
I also have the pee song, the poop song, and a long list of songs soon to be number one hits.
This is exactly what Oliver Sacks would have recommended! Music and Alzheimer’s (and Parkinson’s and most other dementias): stimulating the mind into action.
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…
Memory can be wonderful and cruel all at once.
It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and I’ve discovered that it takes a year to fully recover from the exhaustion of caregiving. It takes a year to recover fully enough to crave the chance to do it a second time over—to do it right this time.
Last Thursday was one of those gorgeous days that make your spirit soar. It was just warm enough, just breezy enough, just relaxing enough, just full enough of good plans that I wanted Dad here to enjoy it with us. I was in the middle of a supermarket parking lot when that thought came to me, and it was the beginning of a four-day breakdown.
Why can’t I be given a second chance? I’ve got all my energy back now, and I swear if I’m allowed, I’ll show Daddy all the tenderness that I had no time or energy to give him before. Why did he have to die before I recovered my ability to love him?
It was a catch-22 I battled with all weekend.
That Thursday evening I drove over the mountains to attend the licensing of a young preacher. I took advantage of the lonesome drive to listen to a book on tape my niece lent me. The title was “My Life in the Middle Ages.” It was supposed to be funny. Turns out the first two CDs were all about this guy’s father’s declining months. It was about death; about tying up all those messy loose ends.
Of course I bawled my way through that. When I couldn’t take it anymore—when I thought I’d better get my face in shape for the licensing ceremony—I popped in an Ingrid Michaelson CD. Quirky, upbeat Ingrid. Problem is, I’d never really listened to some of those songs before. About the fifth song on the CD is about the inevitability of death. “We are all snowmen, and we’re going to melt one day.”
The same message is being pounded into me over and over.
We’re all snowmen, and were are going to melt one day. It’s the norm. It’s not a devastating tragedy.
But the point of it? The point of living and dying and leaving others behind to bawls their eyes out?
Here I was, the daughter of a preacher, going to the licensing ceremony of a young, vibrant, new preacher, and I wasn’t getting it.
The point of living and dying, it slowly sunk in, is to pass on the baton. The best thing we can do is to spend ourselves living, then die and offer the lessons of our lives as rich mulch for the next generation.
It made me think of all the lessons I absorbed from Dad’s life. Like:
– Nature is awesome
– Don’t spend what you don’t have
– Prayer changes things
– God is gentle
– Invest in people on the fringe of society; they’re the ones who will remember you
It was a good weekend to mourn and know that there is good in all of this.
From now on, when mourning strikes, I will try to add to the list of lessons learned.
And I will think about how my life will have an impact after I—like all of us will—eventually melt.
This week I started wearing the monovision contact lens that I got three years ago. This is the lens that you wear in one eye to correct for reading while leaving the other eye free to focus on things in the distance.
I tried this lens years ago but found it unacceptable. Everything was at once blurry and sharp, and I couldn’t tolerate the tiniest bit of blur in my vision.
I realized it was a mental adjustment—I would have to learn to choose the sharpness of one eye over the blurriness of the other at any distance until all I saw was sharpness. But I was impatient and gave up on the adjustment period, resorting instead to donning and doffing reading glasses when in need.
Now my close-up vision has gotten so bad that when I tried the monovision lens this time, my mind was quite happy to accept the gift of semi-sharpness without the need to scout around for glasses. It took a very short time, in fact, for my brain to adjust and see all things in focus at all distances.
Remarkable how the brain can do that.
I learned a similar lesson in life with the attitude of gratitude. I was going through a very stressful, heart-rending period when nothing seemed to be “working” for me. One day I plopped down on the floor and began to say “thank you” for every part of my life. It was a turning point in my stress level. I began to see not problems but challenges; not curses but blessings. And what a difference it made!
Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases, I’m noticing, can be lenses that change the way we see life; they change what we think is important; they bring into focal clarity the gift of family, friends, community, connection. I’m amazed as I surf the blogs written by sufferers and caregivers to see the softness that takes over when anger ends. I’m amazed, for example, with Michael J. Fox’s attitude toward his Parkinson’s, calling it a “liberating” gift. I’m touched by the may bloggers who share of the immense struggle of caregiving and the eventual gratitude it produces in them.
It’s always a choice the person makes to see disease differently. Or rather, to see the value of the person despite the disease.
In this season of Thanksgiving, it is good to see the change that Alzheimer’s and other diseases have brought to our self-centered culture.
So, thank you to all of you who write and share of your struggles, forming a new community that chooses to rise above bitterness and embrace even the bleakest, darkest days of life for the goodness they produce.
More on the brain’s default network:
The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less capable of shutting down when the mind is concentrating on some difficult cognitive task as it would do in a younger adult’s brain. Since the default network uses 30% more resources than the rest of the brain, you can see how the resources available for cognitively challenging tasks decreases as we age.
In Alzheimer’s, you get the extreme case of this aging effect: the default network doesn’t shut down at all when it’s supposed to (same as in Schizophrenia–which is probably why they use antipsychotic drugs meant for Schizophrenia in Alzheimer’s patients) until that part of the brain eventually dies.
The default network is not very developed in children. It gets more active as we grow into adulthood. That makes me wonder if language is the software that runs the default network. Think about it: the default network is the part of the brain that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes memories, and language is the software that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes meaning. With language also comes prejudice, and prejudice does not exist in the very young. Also, in Alzheimer’s the default network eventually atrophies, and language ceases (just further argument that the default network is inextricably tied to language).
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Last week there were articles all over the news saying that having more than one language guards you against the worst of Alzheimer’s. Mom spoke four languages and fell prey to Alzheimer’s in her sixties–with no family history of early Alzheimer’s. Dad spoke three
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.
It’s a very painful fact that I miss Dad and that I wish I had spent more “being time” with him instead of dividing my time between being and being productive. As I’ve mentioned before, in hindsight, all you want is to be near the one you’ve lost just a few more minutes. Nothing else matters but being in the person’s presence and having them know you are there.
I want to do this with Mom, but Alzheimer’s presents a huge problem. Whenever I see Mom sitting alone, it kills me because she looks so terribly alone. So I go sit with her, and on a good day—most days—she is riveted with my presence. But the second I leave her sight—to fling clothes from the washer to the dryer; to use the bathroom; to make a cup of tea—she is completely alone again. And in those moments—from her perspective—she has always been and always will be alone. There is no memory of my having been in her presence all morning other than a few moments of necessary “productive time.”
I hate this disease. There is no sufficient quality time you can give someone with Alzheimer’s. As a caregiver, it feels like there is no neutral status for you as a human being: you are either benevolent or malevolent; sacrificial or selfish; worthy or worthless.
Alzheimer’s isn’t a one-man disease; it does a pretty good job of spreading the pain around.
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