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May 2019
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2005-10-04 Upset as close relative is unable to remember me

Sitting beside me in the resident's lounge was a tall, attractive, elegant lady, in her early eighties, widowed for some time, but with a loving family just a few miles away. I held her hand, and reminded her who I was.


She once knew me like one of her own. I told her all about my family, my career and my life in general. I asked her if her son had been to see her recently: she said she hadn't seen him in a long time.


He had visited her the day before, along with her two grandsons. She asked about my mother: she had attended my mother's funeral on Easter Monday, 2002. She asked how her own mother was: she had passed away in 1990.

At this stage, I was finding it upsetting, seeing a close relation, who once knew me well, so disorientated. I had been with her for half an hour, but I could sense that for her it didn't make much difference if I was there for two minutes or two hours.


As I was leaving, she introduced me to some of the other lady residents as `a good friend of hers', and `a handsome young fellow'. I was a stranger to her. I knew by then, that I was already on my way, not only out of the care home, but also out of her limited memory.


Forgetting some episodes from our past is perhaps an appealing thought, but forgetting everything hardly bears thinking about. I left, still undecided as to whether Alzheimers was worse for the patient, or for the patient's loved ones.

Alzheimer's Disease is the best-known form of `dementia', and was named after Alois Alzheimer in 1907. Dementia is progressive brain dysfunction, and is inevitably most common in elderly/retired people. A higher life expectancy has led to an increase in dementia, in particular Alzheimers.


Sufferers become disorientated in time and space, and begin to experience difficulty with normal daily activities.


Sufferers become easily confused, unpredictable and forgetful (regarding names and appointments for example). They begin to misplace things, may develop impaired judgement (perhaps with dressing), and may lose concentration easily.

Often the most disturbing trait for the family is when the personality itself changes, and the sufferer becomes unnaturally flirtatious, or suffers mood swings or uncharacteristically violent outbursts.


The final stages can be upsetting for the family, when that slow progressive destruction of nerve cells in the brain leads to problems with walking, speech, swallowing, and worse.


This progressive disease goes from mild to moderate to severe, as the brain's behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable. There is, as we know, no cure as yet, but medication can improve the symptoms, and may slow the progress.

But the brain is malleable, and like the rest of the body needs exercise. "Simple steps in midlife to help build up our brain reserve could help delay or even prevent cognitive decline and dementia" (US National Institute on Aging).


We ought to keep our brains busy and healthy. Adults who lead mentally stimulating lives may develop more neurons, thus exercising their brain cells more efficiently, and boosting brain power.


Physical, mental or even emotional activity can help keep our brains active. Of course, I am not suggesting we fill our universities with octagenarians, but further/higher education may mean that there are better resources to provide a reserve. How we use our brains throughout our lives may make all the difference.

Sitting glued to the TV for hours at a time does not really qualify as mental stimulation. Mental stimulation can come in many guises - crosswords, sudoku, scrabble and bridge, to name but a few.


Keeping busy tunes the brain. Of course, the list of suitable leisure activities is endless - museums, concerts, exhibitions, music, reading, visiting friends, the dying art of letter-writing, computers, painting, movies - many of which provide a wonderful social outlet as well.


Walking for half an hour three times a week definitely affects the brain in a positive way, and reduces blood pressure. Anti-oxidant-rich foods such as spinach, as part of a low-fat diet can also be of benefit.


Who knows if patients currently suffering from this debilitating condition might have delayed the onset had they had more active brains throughout their lives? We don't know, but it can do no harm to try.