This week, we begin a series of posts on the theme of Losing and Lost. Our first contributor is Chris Yeomans who writes about her lived experience of the slow loss that occurs when a partner has Alzheimer’s. It is both moving and relevant.
Alzheimer’s seems to me to be predominantly about loss. And so, to a lesser extent, is old age. I look at myself. I am not that young woman who lived a life decades ago, not the child that young woman once was. And yet of course there is a continuous thread in my brain, and in the brains of those who know me, which are the memories of some of those times. Selective of course. Defective certainly. But there is a certain consistency and some agreement with friends and family that they broadly represent a shared reality.
Dementia disrupts that thread. Memories are simply lost, never to be recovered. And with those memories also some recognition of patterns of behaviour. I behave in the way that I do because I have a memory of how I have behaved in similar situations, that behaviour born of genetics, circumstances, and conditioning. I can modify it to a very small extent, but I am unlikely to be able to change it completely.
The challenge of relating to someone with dementia is that those patterns no longer exist. The brain changes mean that the very person changes and seems no longer to be who they once were. That is loss of course. The loss of a person. Except that it is difficult to accept the grief of the loss because that person is still here. That body/mind continues to live a life, but the brain, which controls all things, has changed. The loved physical manifestation of that person does not now represent quite what it did. And that is a hard thing to get your head around.
I have changed too. I am not that young woman from way back. My body doesn’t do anything like the things it used to do. I am slow. I am stiff. I have lost youth and flexibility. My husband now looks like an old man in ways that he didn’t ten years ago. Change. Loss. The basics of human life.
Change is hard. I find myself caring for someone who is no longer the person that he used to be. That person has changed into someone that I wouldn’t, sometimes, necessarily, find it easy to be with or relate to. And so I have to deal all the time with the question of acceptance. And that too is quite tricky. In relationships, there are lines to be drawn. There are things we can accept and things that we challenge. But in a relationship with someone with an impaired brain, there is no point in trying to challenge, as there can be no learning or changing without memory. The person I live with has changed but is not yet a complete stranger. And even with increased mental impairment, that body will continue to remind me of the person who once engaged with me. It will be hard, I’m sure.