Who Says People With Alzheimer's Can't Remember?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In Joshua Foer's TED video -- "Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do" -- we are taken into the little-known world of memory competitions. What's more surprising is that he, an ordinary person with no previous memory training, actually won one of the contests. He explains that these competitions can serve as an important lesson for us, namely that memory plays a critical role in the human experience.

Many of us think that people with Alzheimer's have few memories. But this is not always the case. It's true that they will not win any competitions as Mr. Foer did. And they may not remember what happened yesterday. However, they can sometimes recall certain events and enjoy memories of pleasant happenings from their distant past.

Sometimes Alzheimer's patients who can't even recall whether they had lunch -- let alone what they ate -- can remember the melodies of songs from their youth and young adult years. Anyone who has observed a sing-along in a nursing home has seen this.

They can also often recall all the words to these songs and sing along just as people without Alzheimer's do. This is striking because many times these are people who haven't even talked for months or years.

People with dementia can remember not just music from long ago -- they can also recollect other happenings from the distant past.

I'd like to give an example from Ed, my Romanian soul mate of 30 years, who had Alzheimer's. Ed was living in a long-term care facility for people with Alzheimer's when the following story took place.

One day I showed Ed a 30-year-old photo of us together. He recognized me in person then, but didn't realize I was the woman in the photo. Nonetheless, he looked in my eyes with a serious expression and remarked, "Ah... she loved me." He remembered the affect he'd felt when the photo was taken even if he didn't recognize I was the one who had loved him.

Another example from Ed occurred when I told him I was applying for a new job. The first time I told him, he responded, "That lady on the television is the pope." He didn't understand a word of what I was telling him.

So you can imagine my shock at his response a few weeks later when I told him about it again. That time he said in a strong, clear voice. "You'll get the job! With all of your talent, experience and success writing grants at the University of Cincinnati, I'm sure they'll hire you." That day he remembered vividly how successful I'd been during my long 25-year career.

It is sometimes thought that even if people with Alzheimer's can remember things from long ago, they may not understand or recall recent past events. Let me recount still another example from Ed that contradicts this belief.

He suddenly looked me right in the eyes and said, "You look so beautiful in that black shirt even though I know you're wearing it for death." -- Marie Marley

When my mother passed away, I told Ed. He became visibly upset and said, "My mother didn't die. I just talked to her last night." (Since he was 88, this obviously couldn't have been true.)

I told him, "No. Not your mother. My mother died. He looked baffled. I could have told him I'd fallen down the steps or gone to the dentist that day -- it all would have been the same to him.

I didn't bring up the topic again. Then one day two weeks later I was wearing a black shirt (as I'd decided to do to mark my mother's passing) as I sat beside him at lunch. He suddenly looked me right in the eyes and said, "You look so beautiful in that black shirt even though I know you're wearing it for death."

I was stunned. And I realized it's true. Sometimes people with Alzheimer's exhibit memory abilities we'd never expect from them. This allows them to share in the rich human experience, which -- as Mr. Foer aptly points out -- is enhanced by memory.

Do any of you have examples of feats of memory people with Alzheimer's have demonstrated?

For more about Ed and memory you can read my book about our relationship and visit my website, which has a wealth of information about Alzheimer's caregiving.

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