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False Memories and Compassionate Misinformation

After yesterday’s writing about Mom remembering the feeling of something either traumatic or joyfully heart-felt, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what I learned about this aspect of dementia from the Support Group and the Alzheimer’s classes I attend. Both have taught me that this disease can cause our loved ones to experience (bring on) false ideas and memories, and even in some cases, periods of suspicion, aggression, anger, hostility, mistrust and even assault.

Mom has not had most of these things with me - thank God because I’m not a black belt.  But I do experience Mom’s exaggeration(s) of a situation, or wrongly condemn someone one day, and then not remember that condemnation on another.  “False Memories" are common.

Four years ago, I was taking the first trip I had taken in several years.  I was meeting a very special man in Minneapolis for a long weekend.  He and I had been introduced by a trusted, mutual friend that Mom knew quite well.  However, the morning I stopped by her house before my flight, there was a horrible look on her face.

The caregiver on duty told me, “Your mother has not slept at all.  She is worried about you and this trip.”  So, I sat down and gently asked Mom, “What is going on?  Why are you so worried?” Angrily she said, “I do not understand why this man can’t come here for a visit!!  You don’t even know him.  You are meeting a complete stranger who could murder you!”

I calmly explained (again) that he had already come for a visit here twice.  I reminded her (again) that he and I met through our mutual good friend, Timm, “the conductor,” “Maestro Timm Rolek” remember? ...You know Timm, Mom” I said gently.  I saw the wheels turning and a few dots connecting.  Because she finally remembered who Timm was, she relaxed.  “Oh, I do know him and his wife. They are very kind people,” she said. 

“He’s the one who introduced us, Mom, and Dave is not a complete stranger,” I said. “I am taking a quick trip to see him for a little time off.  Will that be all right?” I said softly.  It was fine.  It didn’t take much to calm her down; and it was also the last time I ever let her know I was going out of town.

Not letting Mom know I am going out of town or if I am already out of town is one variation and definition of what’s known as “Compassionate Misinformation,” which I talk about many times in these writings.  Because Mom is incapable of processing normally, it is better to not let her know the specifics of my life to keep her mind at ease. 

While I am away, my voice messages are no different than when I am home, or in the local area.  A normal voicemail sounds like this: “Hi Mom, I’m in south town dropping off depositions, just about to get on the freeway and fight traffic. Heading home.  Dogs are fine. They’re in their recliners with a keg of beer watching The Green Mile. I’ll tell them hi for you.  I’ll try you in a bit, or call just before dinner…Love youuuu!”

If she happens to answer the phone, the conversation will be no different.  It isn’t difficult to steer our chats in a direction that keeps her mind thinking, “Life is the same, all is well.”  The sole purpose for these calls is to always keep Mom calm and happy.   The goal always is to keep her safe, calm, and happy - and in that order.

What is also important to talk about, is when mom experiences a “False Memory,” it usually isn’t permanent or earth-shattering.  Because I’m so deeply involved in Mom’s care, I can detect the difference between a “False Memory” and a true one and not buy into the false one. 

However, the times she is deep into believing something, or stuck on something like a broken record, or becomes angry or fearful, I can see a certain look on her face and I usually can shift her away from it by immediately asking a question, or making a statement that goes something like this: “You’ll never guess what happened today.” Or, “Guess who I ran into?”  She also loves off-color jokes told with exaggerated inflections and profanity, so I’ll launch into a diatribe that usually has her peeing her pants in no time. These things “click” her brain into a different direction, and it works every time.

If she can’t let something go due to how this stupid disease manifests itself, it is difficult to watch, and I’m powerless to help.  I have learned, however, to accept what is, let it go, and let the process run its course.  Sometimes it will run its course. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it takes a while.  Sometimes it's forgotten in 10 seconds flat. Whatever way it goes, I have learned it’s out of my hands, and I just have to wait it out.

On a larger, more divine and sacred tapestry, I remember that this is as much a process for mom as it is for me.  Just like parents rearing their child, exchanges happen, advice is given, but ultimately, at some point, we all have to let go to allow each of us to walk our own path.  Alzheimer’s for mom is now her path. It is her journey, and above all, it must be respected.

That said, caregiving and experiencing Alzheimer’s is now my path. I even go so far as to say it is my sacred and spiritual path, and should also be respected. 

What Is True For Me

Having the awareness of knowing exactly how to handle mom’s “False Memories” and misunderstandings comes from the observations and time I have been with her. Paying attention to all of it and speaking to her in a calm voice, a soft tone, and even offering “Compassionate Misinformation” with her, works for me and goes a very long way in helping mom to feel safe, calm and happy.

And no one, not you, not me, will be struck down by lightening. Honest.

*PODCAST available on this blog in "Forgive and Forget's Podcast."

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