Surprising and gratifying moments in caregiving: people with dementia can have moments of clarity
by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief
People with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias can have moments of clarity, often both gratifying and mystifying to the family and loved ones. These moments haven't, to my knowledge, been explained scientifically, and no one knows when or if they will occur. We simply must enjoy them and move on as our loved one sinks back into dementia territory.
During one visit, no different in most respects than my other daily visits to my dad who lived in a nearby nursing home, he looked at me with total clarity, and said, "I think I make up all of these problems because I need something to do." The man speaking was my dad. His eyes and the whole look of his face were like dad used to be, before his dementia. His beautiful blue eyes looked softly at me rather than rolling in their sockets. The faded look I'd grown used to was gone. The moment was strange and mystical.
I responded with tears in my eyes and gratitude in my heart. I told him I was happy to do whatever he needed me to do so he could stay occupied. While I was hugging him, he slipped back into his dementia.
I experienced this minor miracle several times during the decade dad lived after his brain surgery left him demented. I've since found out that others have had similar experiences.
Moments of Clarity Baffling, but Not Rare
When I was speaking to a college gerontology class that uses my book "Minding Our Elders" as a class text, someone brought up a moment like this. She said she'd had something similar happen with her grandmother.
Anna, the college girl, could not remember her grandmother without Alzheimer's disease. However the disease had recently gotten to the point where Anna's grandmother no longer knew her grand daughter. This was hard on young Anna, but she kept up her frequent visits. One day, as she was leaving after a visit, Anna hugged her grandmother and said, "I love you, Grandma." Her grandmother answered back with total clarity, "I love you, too, Anna." They continued hugging as in old times, and then Anna's grandmother slipped back into her mind, staring blankly into space. She no longer knew anyone about her.
On elder care forums I've moderated, and from readers' notes and e-mails, I've heard similar stories. Most people are baffled, but gratified, by the experience. Just today, I got a note from a spousal caregiver. The man and his wife are in their 80s, and the woman has stage five Alzheimer's.
Over the weekend, the woman suddenly asked where they were living. He told her they were still in their condominium. She asked his name. He told her. Then she asked for a tour of their home. She seemed tuned in, and she recognized and remembered many objects from their past. It's not like the disease went away. Far from it. However, this wonderful moment stretched over a couple of hours. Then it was gone and she no longer remembered who her husband was or where they lived.
But what a wonderful gift for this man! He can now treasure those hours as he continues on with his intensive caregiving duties.
As caregivers, we need to be alert enough not to miss these precious moments, as they can come and go with the flutter of an eyelid. However, when we do catch these moments, they remain in our hearts and urge us forward in our caregiving. They feel a little like a heavenly gift to remind us that the person we are caring for is still "in there."