I have commented many times about the fact that people with dementia lose their rational thought processes. They gradually lose their memory of names, places, and procedures. On the other hand, they retain their intuitive abilities. They are able to enjoy music, beauty in nature and art, eating favorite foods, and socializing with friends and family. Kate and I have gotten along happily by focusing on her intuitive abilities and have minimized the importance of the rational ones that have diminished so greatly. Over time, I have begun to notice an interesting intersection of rational and intuitive thought and have been struck by this connection. Let me give you a few examples.
At lunch earlier this week, Kate and I talked about a friend of mine. She asked where he lives. I told her Columbia, South Carolina. She was curious about the name and wondered about its origin. I told her it was named after Christopher Columbus. She said, “Who is he?” I explained that he is often thought of as the one who “discovered” America. She was puzzled. That led to my trying to explain his attempting to find the East by sailing west. I mentioned that people used to think the world was flat. As you might expect, she was quickly overwhelmed by information and asked me to stop. Her rational thought processes were unable to absorb what I was telling her.
We had a similar experience another day this week. She said something funny. We both laughed. Then I said, “You can really be funny. I’ll be your straight man. We could put this show on the road.” I got a puzzled look. I could tell she didn’t know what I meant by “straight man.” Then I tried to explain it. I didn’t get very far at all. I told her about comedians who worked in pairs and that one would appear to be more serious and would say things to prompt the other person to respond with something funny. Then I foolishly mentioned Abbot and Costello, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Naturally, she didn’t remember any of them. I told her we would look at some YouTube videos to help her understand. That diverted her attention, and we went on to something else. The important point is that she has an intuitive sense that leads her to want to know the answer to a question her rational thought can’t handle.
The jigsaw puzzles she works on her iPad represent the most relevant example in our lives. She loves working her puzzles. She often asks me what she can do after we come home from lunch, dinner, or other outing. I give her the same choices almost every time. No matter what options I give her she almost always chooses the puzzles. Once she starts them, she inevitably runs into a problem. Every problem arises from a failure of her rational ability. One of the most frequent ones is getting stuck in the store to buy more puzzles. There is a small green button with a shopping cart in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. She frequently touches it instead of the button that will take her to select the next puzzle. Similarly, when she is on the screen with the choices for her next puzzle, she often forgets that all she has to do is touch the puzzle she wants to work. She often asks me how to get to the next puzzle. Other times, she chooses the “Store” button instead.
This can be frustrating for her. She wants another puzzle, but she can’t remember how to get it. In other words, her intuitive thought exhibits a feeling of desire for a puzzle, but her rational ability doesn’t function well enough to do it consistently.
Another incident illustrates this intuitive desire to know without the rational ability to remember. Not long ago, she couldn’t remember my name. I said, I said, “That’s not important. You know who I am.” She quickly responded. “It is important. I should know your name.”
Now let me return to my comment about an intersection of rational and intuitive thought or abilities. It has been almost a year since I first read The Dementia Handbook in which the author, Judy Cornish, defines these concepts and explains their relevance for people with dementia and their caregivers. When I first learned about these concepts, I thought of them as completely independent abilities unrelated to each other. I am now discovering that is not so.
My error was failing to recognize an important intersection between the two. Our intuitive thought leads us to get the answers to questions or problems. That’s something every parent and school teacher observes on a daily basis. Very early infants and toddlers use their intuitive abilities to explore the world. Think about a young child who picks up an object, looks at it, puts it in his mouth, and/or bangs it against the floor. In each case, he is learning something about the world around him. The curiosity of children always intrigues me. Everything is new. They have very little in the way of rational abilities and want to learn about everything. Our rational abilities develop over a lifetime, and much of learning involves our intuitive thought that tells us this learning is important or interesting or both.
Kate was an English teacher for three years and a librarian for the balance of her career. Like other educators, learning (and this means a lot of rational thought processes) is something she values highly. She admires and respects people who have achieved high levels of knowledge in any field of study. Even at this late stage of her Alzheimer’s, this feeling about knowledge is strong. She expresses it when she overhears a report on the evening news and wants me to explain it. The sad part is that she is no longer able to learn the way she did before. The surprising thing is that she isn’t frustrated all the time.