I’ve heard other caregivers express sorrow over the changes in everyday conversation with their spouses. I’ve had the same experience with Kate. During the first two years after her diagnosis, our conversation was pretty much the same as it had always been. Gradually, we talked less and less. I think two things accounted for the change. First, I’ve always been a bigger talker than Kate. My parents were incessant talkers. I think my brother and I were heavily influenced by them. Kate has always been able to handle everyday social situations with ease, but she doesn’t have the same drive to talk that my brother and I have. When Alzheimer’s entered her life, she became quieter. We would go long stretches with silence, something that is a bit of a problem for me. I also found that when I would tell her something I was excited about, she didn’t respond in the way she would have previously. Our conversations became one-sided. Even talkers need a little encouragement to keep talking. She just didn’t provide it.
The second thing that accounts for this change is that a lot of conversation relies on memory. In almost any conversation, we refer to things that happened or that we talked about previously. As Kate’s memory declined, she lost the information she needed to carry on a conversation. Each time I would start a conversation, she would be puzzled because she couldn’t remember what I was referring to.
As a result, we talked very little. I felt especially uneasy when we were in restaurants. She wasn’t bothered at all. She could go through a whole meal without saying anything. Frequently, she would close her eyes as though she was going to sleep. Sometimes I wondered if people thought we were having some kind of marital problem. Over time, I learned to accept this, but I still missed our conversations.
Looking back, I believe I was slower to live in her world than I should have been. When she talked, her conversation related to her family. She has a deep love and admiration for her mother. Her long-term memory was still pretty good. What I have only grasped more recently is that feelings last much longer than specific facts. Gradually, we have both evolved into conversations that involve our feelings about both of our families and about our lives in general. We reflect on our friends, the places we have lived, the things we have done, our travel, and other highlights of our marriage.
This change in focus has had a significant impact on our conversation. It is still quite different than before Alzheimer’s, but it is enjoyable for both of us. It depends on my initiating the conversation. I bring up as many different things about our marriage and our families as I can remember. That provides a wealth of topics. The good news is that we can keep repeating them, and they are always new to her. I try to keep the focus on our feelings for the events of our lives rather than simply the facts. The facts provide a way to bring back the feelings. I admit it doesn’t always work the way I had intended. For example, last night I brought up her visit to the Jeu de Paume in Paris with our daughter in 1973. I told her they saw somebody special. Kate’s eyes lit up. It turned out that she didn’t remember the experience itself or that it was Julie Andrews and her daughter they had seen. On the other hand, she enjoyed the story I told her. That is true for almost all of the things I bring up. It’s not a loss, however. She experiences them in the moment I tell her. It’s the way children enjoy the stories their parents tell them. This is working for both of us.