The Upside of Dementia

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There’s something good about dementia, you say? If you’re caring for someone who has a memory-altering condition, the idea that dementia has an upside may be puzzling, infuriating or, perhaps, even insulting.

Let me explain.

I didn’t have personal experience with dementia until my late mother-in-law developed the disorder in her mid-80s. My grandparents didn’t have dementia nor did my parents. My 92-year-old dad, who I write about frequently, still lives semi-independently.

Everything I knew about dementia was what I’d written about. And it seemed bad—really bad. All those behavioral symptoms like agitation and repetition and confusion sounded horrific. Stories from family caregivers I interviewed just brought those horrors to life.

So when my mother-in-law Camille started developing some of those symptoms, I was frightened. We didn’t live in the same town, but family who did live there kept her at home – with caregiving help – for years. Finally, they no longer could. Yup, I thought, she’s going down the path that so many others travel.

Camille in her care community.

Camille spent the last three years of her life in care facilities. First, she was in an assisted living community and then in skilled nursing care before she died last fall at age 93.

Placing her in a care community was difficult and left me plagued with guilt, for one important reason. When I became engaged to her son, my mother-in-law made me promise never to put her in a “nursing home.” It remained one of her biggest fears.

So when she had to go there, I anticipated she would be devastated. But she wasn’t, in large part because she didn’t fully understand where she was. Chalk that up to dementia. All Camille knew is she was at a place where people were attending to her needs and caring for her. And, as long as her anxiety could be controlled, she seemed content.

Like many others with dementia, Camille spent much of her time in the distant past. She often focused on the funny and the sweet, the quirky and the quaint. She loved talking about her four decades as a Dairy Queen owner and all the “girls” who worked for her.

She harkened back to swimming with her brothers in southeastern Nebraska’s sand pits near the Blue River and the antics of her many dogs like “Sam,” the German shepherd who guarded her home.

She sang favorite songs such as “You Are My Sunshine” and entertained dinner tablemates with Czech words and phrases. When she wasn’t in physical pain, she was mostly in a happy place emotionally.

But, once in a while, during a moment of lucidity, you could see the realization in her eyes. The understanding of where she was. And that was painful. When we arrived one day, a favorite nurse – Jenny – said my mother-in-law had asked her: “This is an old folks’ home, isn’t it?” Jenny said, “yes,” to which Camille responded: “I don’t belong here.”

But often I think she really believed she was home. She would mistake the buffet in the care community guest dining room for her cabinet at home. She’d ask us to get in there to find something for her.

And one night she wandered out of her room across the hall and was found looking through a closet. It was something she might have done at home.

I hate to say I gained an appreciation for dementia watching my mother-in-law. How do you appreciate a disorder that robs those we love of so much? But I did see some silver linings. How about you? Have you found anything good about dementia – anything for which to be thankful?

One thing I do know is I have dementia to thank for easing my guilt in breaking a 30-year-old promise to my mother-in-law.​​​

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