This week, my visit to Mum’s care home came at a rather fractious time. For no apparent reason that we could discern, one or two of the residents were a little out of sorts. One, in particular, seemed to have it in for another. It made, briefly, for a rather tense atmosphere but, as always, the staff diffused the tension and all, in time, was forgotten.
Except, it isn’t forgotten, not really. While the resident who was the subject of the other’s anger might not recall the actual incident, the feelings generated by that incident do remain. The area of the brain which deals most directly with emotional responses – the amygdala – is, apparently, more resilient than the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is involved with forming memories. So, while the memory of what’s just happened might not be accessible for someone living with dementia, the emotions aroused by it will still be there. Get me, swallowing a book on the human brain. (There you have just about all of my understanding by the way.)
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since Mum’s diagnosis is that while she sometimes seems unsure of who exactly I am, the feelings generated by my visits are just as strong as ever – pleasure if we laugh and sing together, pain if we are at odds with one another, which never happens for precisely that reason.
Sometimes a relative or friend will say that they don’t visit someone living with dementia any more because the person “doesn’t know who I am”. I understand that. Those silences can be uncomfortable. It isn’t easy for the visitor, but I suspect it might be harder for the person living with dementia, trying to make that missing connection. But if we smile and laugh, perhaps even hold hands, the visit will mean something.
Mum will have probably have forgotten my visit within minutes of me leaving on Tuesday but I hope the smiles we shared will still be with her.