Dad and Frank on "the set"

September 16, 2011:  The two 91-year olds still remember their days with "Ole Blue Eyes" even though our dad's memory has been hijacked by Alzheimer's and our mother's by dementia.  In the nursing home they are stars reliving their life at the Fountainbleu when Vince Esposito was Frank Sinatra's sound consultant and our mother, Clara, was reporting back on the antics of Mia Farrow. They were extras in "Tony Rome" and it is still a highlight of their life though second to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Among the 15 million caregivers watching those they love drift into the land of days gone by there is often frustration, sadness, and anger. Daniel Z. Press, M.D., a neurologist at the Division of Behavioral Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, in talking about caregiver stress, says, "I always tell children or spouses to separate the person from the disease. When they get angry, they should get angry at the disease that is taking away someone they love. But to continue giving good care, they need a rest to recharge their batteries."

And it is easy to be angry with parents who forget by the minute and ask the same questions repeatedly in a matter of seconds. For our parents, how far away they are from the night life and high life they once lived. Yet within the nursing home they tell us they feel like celebrities.

So when they celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary this week, we presented a fedora and glitter microphone to one of the chief administrators and he became Frank helping them to create a memory.

Dad wore his top hat and mother a wedding veil and, as "Frank" crooned "As time goes by," the two danced away with our dad poignantly singing along,"You must remember this. . ."

While there is no cure for those with early dementia or Alzheimer's, work is being done with reminiscence therapy, a popular psycho-social intervention. Some research suggests that when the elderly have an opportunity to discuss past events, with a focus on the positive, it helps to improve moods.

The research from Paris at the recent international conference on Alzheimer's was clear - exercise, exercise, exercise.  Yet many of us do not even take that option for ourselves.  Fortunately there are some preventatives for those of us who worry every time we forget the keys or someone's name.

James M. Ellison, M.D., is clinical director of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass., and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He tells me "The most authoritative evidence to date suggests that receiving training in cognitive skills such as processing speed, problem solving, and memory can produce persistent improvements in cognitively intact older adults."

Dr. Ellison added: "Keep in mind that the activities one chooses to boost memory should be enjoyable and pursed in moderation. Ultimately, I would put more faith in physical activity than cognitive stimulation because that is where the evidence is strongest."

Always a fit walker, our father has also long been a proponent of word search games and is so good at it that he even stumps us.  Mother prefers to reminisce about the past and bemoan the fact that she can't go out dancing on Saturday nights or take her car out to go shopping.  But in all of the "I wish we could" from a mother who knows all about imparting Italian guilt, when my sister and I leave the nursing home we can smile knowing that she lived the good life. 

Today as we listen to them reminisce when all of their grandchildren are visiting -we see that what they are holding onto for themselves is something we must all begin to treasure, cherish, and create - the gift of happy memories.

Copyright 2011 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved

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