A blog post by Mary Moscarello. Photos by Mary Moscarello.

Are you at “gotta write it down now or I’ll forget” age? Then come sit by me, I’ve been here a while. I can show you where we hide the good cookies. 
I had to come write this post just minutes before I teach class because inspiration struck and I know if I don’t get something on my blog about it, I’ll forget my point. Fittingly enough, this post is about memory loss.

We as humans value memory so much. I’m one of them. Elephants are said to have the longest memory of any mammal or something like that – I loved them before I learned that fun fact. The Hindu diety Ganesha (my fave) just had a birthday recently and I find it fitting that this “remover of obstacles” is embodied by the image of an elephant – a being that remembers well.  

Does remembering help us remove obstacles? I’d say it does, if you subscribe to the “once bitten, twice shy” philosophy of learning those sometimes painful lessons in life. Maybe that’s a debate for another time and another post.

We know that LOSING memory becomes an obstacle. Oh boy do I know this. I have a front row seat to this now. I’d seen glimpses of it before but none of my elders seemed to have memory issues. What is more likely true is that I didn’t have the front row seat I do to it now. My 95-year old mother in law has those issues. My bonus father in law (my bonus children’s grandfather) does too and family members of mine are sitting right in that front row with me. Though their cast of characters are different, the basic plot is the same.

Caring for someone with memory loss can be exhausting. In sharing our mutual experiences over the phone recently with one family member in particular, we commiserated about how difficult it can be from a caregiver’s perspective. When dealing with adult onset dementia or any mentally degenerative condition that affects memory – the amount of patience you need just to cope, multiplies exponentially. Resisting the urge to push “reality” on a person that is clearly out of touch with it takes practice. Thankfully I’ve begun to learn this lesson. The “improv” technique of “yes, and?” comes in very handy.

I’m no expert on aging, but I’ve found it helpful to (and had others in the trenches say this to me) focus on how the person is experiencing their reality. Are they happy? Then help them stay that way. Are they sad? Then distract them with something happy. I know it sounds oversimplified, and it IS. There comes a point during this journey with memory when you can’t affect the mood. The person becomes inconsolable so you then focus on physical comfort. Are they fed? Clean? Warm? Thirsty? Meet those needs and move on. Pick your battles, so to speak.

My mother in law went through a period of days where she was distraught at the notion she needed to go find a job. “Who is gonna hire this old lady?” “How am I going to help with this house?” she’d weep. So do I say, you don’t need a job or do I invent a fictitious job for which she is the ideal candidate? She’s in her reality and I’m in mine. They’re not the same but that’s okay. How do I bridge the gap?  Moving forward with compassion and understanding, I have improved odds that the tears might stop.

She also now believes that Bongo ran away. He didn’t run away, he died. Resisting the urge to correct this mental detour is very hard for me. Especially tough when she calls him ungrateful for leaving such a good home. I mean. I’m trying right now to control my quickening pulse at that thought alone. But my compassion helps me pause and see that it could be a defense mechanism as well as a mental decline that is producing this narrative. 

She loved Bongo. 

He loved her
They hung out

She walked him occasionally. Always in style, lol. Thanks to the above picture, that’s in my memory and if it has left hers, well that’s okay. His presence helped me be in hers when things were tough. My dog was her therapy dog and he was mine.

The reason why dogs are great with old people or people with memory issues is they don’t expect anything from the person. They’re just present. We need to rationalize the idea that their reality isn’t ours. But they just exist and share space. 

A lofty goal to be like my dog was. But he was happy right up until the end – so following his lead isn’t such a bad idea.