The Indestructible Foundations of Identity: With and Without Alzheimer's Disease

"Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children." I reflect on Charles R. Swindoll's words and the memory formations made while visiting an Alzheimer's memory care community. I was, yet again, amazed at how our brains fire up, connecting neurons to recall deep seeded thoughts and emotions, and how that affects us as individuals and in our relationships. As I was setting up the table to prepare for an art therapy session, I found two women in the advancing stages of Alzheimer's disease looking at magazines. As one lady turned a page it revealed an attractive, fit model posing in a plaid outfit, the other lady, "Cathy" sat in her wheelchair next to the other lady and peered over and pointed to the model saying, "I can't wear patterns because I'm fat and it looks bad." The other lady didn't react; she just stared at her magazine. Stunned, I stood there for a few seconds processing her comment, and reeling in the fact that this beautiful woman was living in the throes of Alzheimer's, with her long gray hair piled up on her head, wearing beige pants and a solid yellow shirt, who can't remember what she did a week, day, or even an hour ago, was able to retrieve a memory from years ago that somehow formed the idea in her brain that she was fat and can't wear a certain style of clothes.

In my moment of awe, I automatically said to her, "I think you would look lovely in any clothes you wear." She smiled and retorted, "My mother would tell you different. She always told me- Cathy, don't be boring- nobody likes a boring person. Don't wear patterns- you're too fat for that." I asked how that made her feel and she said, "It made me angry. She always made me angry when she picked on me." I validated those comments would make me angry too. She smiled and went back to looking at her magazine on animals. After an hour, I heard Cathy talking to another woman, "I can't wear patterns. My mother always told me- Cathy don't be boring- nobody likes a boring person and don't wear patterns- you're too fat." She then complimented the other ladies on their looks.

Alzheimer's is a complex disease; the brain is a mysterious wonder and I was struck on the kind of messages that are repeatedly told and how that plays into self-perception. Does that self-perception change with Alzheimer's? There is a common misconception that persons with advanced Alzheimer's aren't in-tune with their surroundings and can't hear, see or comprehend what is being said around them; that they are lost within themselves. There are triggers that can activate the brain, with and without dementia, and it can be a positive or negative experience. The deep emotions pared with those tapped memories play a role, and I am reminded of the importance of being kind to ourselves, and to each other. The relationships modeled in life are interconnected, and the memories of how those relationships affect us may shape the way we view ourselves and interact in the world, even for persons in the advancing stages of Alzheimer's