Dealing with Grief and Preventing Dementia... For both, it may be remember smiles and hugs for everyone.
It's been a tough week. When I created the blog category “Life Happens”, I didn't really expect that it would be happening to me. There is perhaps a lesson in that for me (too). This isn't really about me after all, though it is human to focus on ourselves first in times of grief and loss. This is a story about my mom.
My mom was a good person. She got early onset dementia. Not from anything she did wrong, though below you can learn more about how to prevent that. People in a retirement home took great care of her. They say she always had a smile and a hug for everyone. Since she was about 1300 miles away, I only visited her twice, not as often as I wanted. We chatted a lot, and joined in a lot of activities like bingo and bean bag toss and played with the therapy dogs. But I did write her an actual physical letter every couple of weeks with a SASE (She couldn't check email or handle spam calls on a phone. She could read a physical letter, though, and sometimes replied).
It's not like I knew what to write, really, but I just asked some basic questions like: what kind of birds do you see outside? What activities have you done lately? Then in each I told mom about my container garden or the wild flowers blooming in the yard and what I'd been doing lately. Just chatting, really. To be clear, here, it wasn't my amazing writing skills that were important. It was just staying in touch that mattered. Mom enjoyed telling people about the letters and re-reading them. It made her feel more connected. Strange silver lining of dementia: the more she forgot she'd already read the letters, the more she could enjoy reading them again.
Here's that slight detour on the science on preventing dementia. It seems to be three main categories:
1 Physical exercise and fitness
2 Mental exercise and fitness
3 Socialization and well-being
First, physical exercise and fitness improves your chances to prevent/delay by decades dementia. Dr. Edlund's article in Psychology Today calls it “biological intelligence”. He recommends staying fit, exercising, and eating healthy. All of that is good for feeling better, now, so the chance to stay more mentally alert later in life is a wonderful bonus.
Also, mental exercise and fitness appear to work much the same to prevent dementia. A good rundown is Delilah Falcon's article on symptomfind. Full disclosure, I couldn't find her credentials or sources. A much more scholarly article by Margaret Gatz walks through the science. Since much of it relies on studies (not controlled experiments), it's tougher to know for sure. She also cautions against blaming people for getting dementia because they didn't keep mentally active. A good point, but she still summarizes that education and mental challenges correspond to lower chances of Alzheimer's and dementia, even though scientists aren't positive why.
Finally, socializing and taking care of yourself seems to help. The New York Times had an article years ago by Pam Belluck about Dr. David Snowden's Nun Study. It's still cited and debated today in Alzheimer's research, closely related to dementia. The nuns have dramatically longer than average life spans AND lower rates of Alzheimer's and dementia. (An average lifespan in their 90's, and most are walking or cycling and doing puzzles right up to their death.) It's another study, not a controlled experiment, so the biggest weakness is that scientists can't say for certain which of the factors, or in what combination, cause the good results. But the nuns keep physically fit and eat healthy. They keep mentally active with puzzles and games. They socialize with each other and their outreach programs, and most are optimistic and in good spirits as part of their faith. They donate their brains to science after their deaths, so scientists are sure of the results, just not as sure about the causes of their better than average health. Be good to yourself now.
Back to my mom. She was in the retirement center for awhile. Then she had a big stroke. Again, not so much from bad choices on her part (and the nursing home did a good job with making sure she ate healthy.) Then mom passed away. A nurse wrote me back to say that mom responded to the letters even when she wouldn't to anything else.
I did some research on grief and loss.
There are some resources out there. These can be:
Here's a quick rundown of the five stages of grieving. Not everyone experiences these in the same order or all five. The main point is that people are not as alone as they may feel, and most people could use a little help and support. The forms are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Denial can also be the initial shock that it can't be real. Bargaining often includes “if only” things like “If only we had gotten a second opinion.” Depression is usually the normal sadness. Julie Axelrod explains more in her concise article.
Another site, Helpguide.org has a more detailed article (with a PDF version). It emphasizes that everyone grieves differently for different amounts of time. There is no standard or ideal way or time table. Also, the article points out that people trying to comfort you may feel very awkward, but they mean well. Try to be with the people who care about you. Also, the helpguide.org article gives the signs that a person might need more help, and has things like crisis center helpline numbers just in case.
Anyway, I'm sad, of course, but I don't have a lot of regrets. I did what I could. May I suggest that you spend time with the people you love? Any way you choose to communicate would probably be welcome. A phone call, email, or even an actual letter might work if visiting is impractical. Chances are it would mean a lot to the people that you care about. You could always start small. For example, you could contact one person this week.
May you and your loved ones be well,
Axelrod, Julie. “The 5 Stages of Grief and Loss” PsychCentral.com. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ 8 Feb. 2019.
Belluck, Pam. “Nun's Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging.” New York Times Archives. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/07/us/nuns-offer-clues-to-alzheimer-s-and-aging.html 7 May 2001.
“Coping with Grief and Loss”. Helpguide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm
Edlund, Matthew. “Preventing Dementia”. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-rest/201804/preventing-dementia 12 Apr 2018.
Falcon, Delilah. “10 Essential Tips on Preventing Dementia”. Symptomfind.com. https://www.symptomfind.com/health/how-to-prevent-dementia/ 7 May 2016.
Gatz, Margaret. “Educating the Brain to Avoid Dementia: Can Mental Exercise Prevent Alzheimer Disease?” PLOS Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC545200/ 25 Jan. 2005.
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Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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