Find the joy, and celebrate it, says Alzheimer’s specialist

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Find the joy, and celebrate it. Good advice for most any situation — an Olympian missing out on gold, an employee not getting the expected promotion — but in this case Program Specialist Susan Callison with the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Iowa Chapter was referring to connecting with friends and family with Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Don’t we love it when a friend lets us plan a day together and does things with us that may not be his or her favorite thing, but the person is doing it because they love us? Isn’t if fun when the conversation focuses on us and what we want to talk about instead of some inane topic someone else wants to go on and on about? Can’t it be fun to reminisce about the past or even to fantasize about things that may never happen — winning the lottery, living on Mars?

It seems to me that we spend a lot of money to get away from reality — movies, books, TV shows, trips, games — all for the pure adventure, entertainment, fun and fantasy of it.
And yet we can be incredibly inflexible when visiting our loved ones, wanting it to go as we want it to go and no other way.

Rigid. A narrow definition of how the encounter should play out.

Why?

Why not transfer our love of adventure, fantasy, and joy to our interactions with loved ones who may be functioning at a different level than they used to, but who are able to continue to celebrate moments of joy with us?

It’s our task to seek out these moments. It may not be easy. It may require new skills and creativity. There may be obstacles and challenges, but try we must. They’d do — and most certainly did — everything in their being to make us happy wouldn’t they?

Callison shared a story with the attendees at her presentation “The 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s” at Spring Valley on Wednesday. A daughter — named Sue — was no longer recognized by her mom. It can be heartbreaking and soul crushing. It’s not easy.

The daughter could easily have been angry and depressed and maybe even decided to stop visiting her mother or visiting her infrequently and projecting disappointment during every visit. None of these things would be fun or productive for anyone involved.

Instead, the daughter chose to find joy and celebrate it. Her mother could still communicate and asked Sue — not realizing she was talking with Sue — about her daughter.

Sue did not sigh and try to explain, “I’m Sue. I’m your daughter. Mom, don’t you know me?”

Instead Sue asked, “What were some of the things that you enjoyed doing with Sue?”

In this way, Sue was able to relive memories and fun past events with her mom. This connection is exponentially more positive for all involved than dwelling on the fact that the mom no longer recognizes Sue.

The mother is likely living in a different, earlier time period so why not join her there? In that world, Sue is much younger than her current years so the mom doesn’t recognize someone so old — sorry, Sue — as her daughter. Sue has to move past her mom not knowing her, but, on the plus side, in her mom’s world she gets to be much younger and no doubt more energetic. Not a completely bad thing.

Sue was also mindful enough to share with her mom, “You know, I know Sue, and I know that she loves you very much.” How cool is that?

A high quality connection between mom and daughter. Sharing old, happy memories of past times. Sharing statements of love and strongly connecting on an emotional level.

The mom knows that this person is someone she likes to visit with and someone who likes to visit with her. They share a great time together. The mom smiles and laughs as she talks about Sue, and Sue tells her mom that she knows Sue loves her very much.

In the grander scheme, not being called by your correct name seems like a small price to pay for such a wonderful, invaluable connection. A small sacrifice to make to continue to give your mother — and yourself — joy.

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