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Elders sharing memories can be bittersweet

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

The adjectives used to describe elders' memories are as legendary as some elders' life recollections. There's traveling, wandering, and being stuck in the past. At one time, "senility" was the catch-all descriptive. Dementia symptoms further complicate elder memories. Regardless, it is common for elders to mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even visually, travel back and forth in time as they remember, re-live, and sometimes second-guess their past life experiences.

Elders Share Memories at-Will

For better or for worse, it is common for many elders to re-live their life's memories. If shared with their caregivers, some of the memories may sound familiar. Other shared memories may be incomplete or comprised of elders' inadvertently blending various life circumstances through time and space. When the latter happens, it may be difficult for some caregivers to not react defensively, or repeatedly challenge the accuracy of their elder's memories, particularly where symptoms of dementia may exist.

Generally, experts recommend that caregivers avoid unpleasant confrontations with their elders when elders' life sharing becomes sketchy, inaccurate or obsessive. This is especially true if an elder has been diagnosed with dementia, or exhibits symptoms of dementia. There are constructive and healing ways to handle such memory travels and situations in eldercare.

A Merry-Go-Round of Memories

When my 85-year old Mom gets to missing her mother, the routine is always the same. "I wonder what happened to my mother," she asks me, readily dismissing my reply that I never met my grandmother because she died before I was ever born. How silly of me to remember such a minor detail, or that my grandmother, after whom I am named, is dead. The faded, yellowed obituary might prove this to anyone- except for Mom when she gets to thinking about, and missing, her mother, usually at night. So the care journey goes.

Timing is Everything

The telephone rang just as I placed Mom's dinner plate in front of her. What perfect timing! Mom just had been thinking about her beloved mother who has been dead for 53 years. She was bummed, to say the least. On the other end of the telephone line, Mom was delighted to hear my brother's voice.

I placed the incoming call on speakerphone, as I always enjoy doing whenever we speak with each other long-distance. Speakerphone eliminates the geographic distance between us by making us feel as if we're all seated around the dinner table, or in our living room, just as we once enjoyed face-to-face. Our family's conversations invariably come alive on speakerphone, a resource I highly recommend to any long-distance caregivers who may be so inclined.

When Mom dismisses my lack of contemporaneous knowledge of my grandmother's whereabouts, she sometimes asks me to call my brother so that she may ask him about her mother. As if the answer from her son is going to somehow differ, I think, as I start dialing? Still, I dial.

I invariably place the call to my brother and then go on my merry way onto something that will distract me. Sometimes I giggle to myself as I listen to the verbal banter and exchange of Mom and my brother in the increasingly distant background. It's like I won the jackpot in Las Vegas for a few precious moments of respite.

This time, though, the universe's timing was impeccable. My brother called! My brother is patient with Mom as he reminds, gently repeats, and clarifies long-ago family details about the grandmother I never knew. Sweet respite! God bless my beloved brother for his long-distance carer's commitment, heart and role. You'll never hear me complaining about long-distance caregiving in our little family. God is in His heaven, and all is well in Mom's long-distance care world, as in mine.

Distractions Work for Caregivers, Too

I know. Experts' recommendation is for caregivers to distract their elders when our elders become fixated with similar past-life memories. Sometimes I readily engage in re-directing Mom's focus. More often than not, though, I am the one needing and welcoming distraction at such times.

As I sat at the dinner table fielding the incoming call and making sure that Mom had everything she needed within easy reach at her table setting, I shared with my brother (and Mom) that Mom had just asked about grandmother's whereabouts. As their latest sharing evolved, I saw a glorious window of opportunity for us to enjoy some lighthearted family moments.

Me: "How old would grandmother be if she were alive today," I asked.

One hundred and fifty-seven, was my brother's reply. My brother, the family-designated-historian, is apparently also the family designated mathematician? He didn't skip a beat. Mom chuckled. Such a ludicrous number I thought. I could tell Mom may also have been thinking the same.

My brother rattled off our family's chronology and history. Mom listened, occasionally beamed, pondered and enjoyed ample opportunities to ask clarifying questions, and weigh-in. As the recited ages of long-deceased family members became a bit much, Mom looked across the table at me, smiled broadly, and rolled her eyes at the levity of it all. She pointed her index finger toward her ear as she made circles in the air with her finger. Yep. It helps to be a little crazy, Mom. How insightful, I thought. More shared laughter!

"So there you have it, Mom," I said. "That makes my brother, our family historian, at least 357 years old, or maybe he's Methuselah since he knows all of those details!"

Mom laughed and couldn't stop. (Good thing she hadn't started eating!) I cracked myself up. My brother, our family's memory guru of whom I am in awe, was not the least bit amused. It takes a lot to get him laughing out loud. I remain the rowdy one.

Mom and I, on the other hand, were laughing our heads off by then. My mother and I have always found, and I suspect will always find, humor in life. It's one of so many reasons I enjoy being Mom's caregiver.

I wouldn't be surprised if our loved ones who are no longer alive, including my grandmother, still missing in action as we speak, were just as amused at our family's speakerphone antics. Sweet, eternal respite.

As we said our speakerphone goodbyes to each other, Mom thanked my brother for making her laugh in a way she felt she hadn't in some time. "What am I, chopped liver, Mom?" More laughter, and *laissez les bons temps roulez! (*Let the good times roll!)

When Mom took the first bite of her western-style, homemade omelet, I had my own special lifetime memory flashback. I could hear Dean Martin's smooth voice in my heart singing one classic song, "Memories are Made of This."

"Then add the wedding bells
One house where lovers dwell
Three little kids for flavor
Stir carefully through the days
See how the flavor stays
These are the dreams you will savor."

I am glad that Mom savors the dreams and memories of her life. These are my own life memories, too. I savor each precious moment in care. Time sure flies. So do elder memories, by the way. Then again, we are doing our very best to continue enjoying our lives come what may.