By Monica Heltemes
+Alzheimer's Reading Room
I had time to learn and reflect this past week on memories.
First, I heard a neuropsychiatrist speak and explain how memories are stored, and lost, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, after coming off of a fun-filled weekend with extended family from out of town, I am reflecting on memories and what the loss of them might mean to the person with Alzheimer’s disease, family, and friends.
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Persons with dementia experience changes in brain structure and messaging systems. The hippocampus, a part of the brain where new memories are stored, physically shrinks.
On samples of brain tissue, holes are left where the hippocampus should have been. So, literally, for persons with Alzheimer’s disease, new information enters the brain but soon slips right through, like water going down a drain.
Also, the neurotransmitters that are responsible for promoting the exchange of messages between nerve cells of the brain, are depleted. So it is like the “train” the message is supposed to travel on between point A and point B has derailed.
When you have a combination of “empty storage and “failed messaging” systems, you have an information processing system that no longer saves or transmits information. It is like a broken computer. This is why persons with Alzheimer’s disease ask repeated questions, lose items, and have communication difficulties.
As formerly mentioned, I recently made many new memories with family. Swapping stories, gazing at the stars, and feeding horses in the country, are just a few.
I wondered – what if I could not keep those memories that I experienced? Truly, loss of memory in this condition of Alzheimer’s and other related dementias is unfair, cruel, devastating, and so very sad.
What good could possibly be seen in this situation?
As I reflected, my occupational therapy background kicked in and gave me an answer.
As occupational therapists, we are always looking to what a person “can do”. Persons with dementia may not form new memories well, but they still CAN do things and live in the moment. They can spend time with family, admire the stars, and feed the horses, just as I recently did. The memory may not last but the positive feelings elicited remain.
Just as memories can be made, so can moments be made. If this shift in perspective can be made, the moments gathered by the person with memory loss can be priceless.
MindStart (Activities for Persons with Memory Loss) to learn more.
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