A Thought about Dementia and Learning

I doubt that I am the only caregiver who frequently tries to teach something to his love one. One of the things caregivers are told is to accept the fact that people with dementia lose their rational abilities. That makes it difficult to remember names, facts, and procedures. That’s hard for caregivers to get that through our heads. Ultimately, I suspect that most of us do give up trying, but that can take a while. I think I am there now; however, there are some kind of situations in which I can’t resist. One of those involves Kate and her puzzles.

She has been working jigsaw puzzles on her iPad as much as six to eight hours a day for several years. In the past few months she has begun to have trouble. Sometimes she forgets what to do after finishing one puzzle or to begin a new one. Sometimes she looks at the scattered puzzle pieces and can’t remember what to do with them. When this happens, she asks for my help. Occasionally, she wants me to put the pieces in place for her. Most often, she wants me to solve the problem for her. That usually means getting her out of the store to buy more puzzles or to bring up the next one. Sometimes she wants help completing a puzzle. When this happens, I find myself giving her instructions. For example, I suggest that she locate the pieces that go along each border. That is difficult for her. To help I tell her to look for the pieces that have flat sides. When I do this, I am trying to teach her. So far, I have had zero success. This makes me feel that she can’t learn, but I was wrong. Here’s how I discovered that.

I’ve been putting drops in Kate’s eyes for the past three weeks. The first week or so Kate was frightened by my doing this. She frequently closed her eyes right before a drop went in her eye. After a successful drop, she usually said, “That wasn’t bad.” Other than those words, she had virtually no response to the actual drops. It was the anticipation that troubled her. I was beginning to dread giving her drops another few weeks when she stopped being afraid. Now when I tell her it’s time for her eye drops she isn’t afraid at all. She has obviously learned that it is nothing to be afraid of.

This does not appear to be tapping into her rational thought processes but her intuitive ones. I say that because she almost always forgets that she takes drops. When I tell her it’s time for her drops, she either asks why or puts our her hand for me to place a pill in it. She still doesn’t remember that she has had the surgery, and I have told her almost every time I have given her drops. This confirms the fact that she can’t learn what requires rational thought or ability, but she can learn things that depend on her intuitive thought or ability.

As I reflect a little more, I believe those who work with larger numbers of residents in skilled nursing and memory care facilities could tell many stories that illustrate this kind of learning. Having spent a good amount of time with my dad during his last 3 ½ years in a skilled nursing facility, I am well aware that there are many routines in places like that. There are regular eating times, times for activities, ice cream treats, and meds. Most residents fall into those routines quite easily.

I hadn’t really thought much about this before. Recognizing it strengthens my belief in the value of music and photo albums for Kate. It makes me think even more about the power of our relationship. I am only now beginning to fully appreciate what we have created together. I’ll give an example of that in another post.

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