A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.
We like to be in control. Even the illusion of control can make us feel less stressed and more comfortable than knowing that we’re not in control. Stress reduces both our brain health and our physical health unless we take positive steps to counteract its effects. When a loved one has dementia, we are definitely not in control of anything associated with their life and often we lose control over some of our lives as well.
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you know that both of my parents have suffered from some form of dementia. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and her sister has been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. My father has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease as well as bipolar disorder.
One of the things that I’ve discovered as we’ve traveled the journey through various forms of dementia is that until a way is found to stop Alzheimer’s or Lewy body or whatever form of dementia that strikes a loved one, it doesn’t really matter which it is. The effect is the same: loss of physical and mental function, including severe memory loss. Memory loss is the symptom that we tend to focus on because it is the most obvious in the beginning and in some ways the most difficult to deal with. Taking care of the person who has been in your life since the day you were born and yet doesn’t recognize you can be wrenching.
In my extended family and among my friends are family members who have struggled their whole lives with mental health issues – bipolar disease, addiction, depression, ADHD, OCD. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve started to recognize some of these diseases as actual health issues rather than character flaws. Talking with relatives of people who struggle with these diseases, one of the areas that frustrates them most is the lack of control over their own lives. When you are close to someone with a mental illness, you are often thrown into a new crisis with little to no warning.
Because of my family’s history with dementia, my focus has been on understanding how to create and maintain a healthy brain. The health care community has been focused on preventing diabetes, cancer and heart disease – all good causes. The focus has been on physical health because until recently, brain health hasn’t been very well understood. But over the last 20 years, more and more research has been done on how the brain functions and what causes things to go right and what causes things to go wrong.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find that on the physical side, to keep your brain healthy, you can do many of the same things that you do to keep the rest of you healthy – eat right, exercise, take vitamins and supplements if you’re not getting everything you need from your diet. Overall, what you’re trying to do is optimize the circulation to the brain – making sure that it gets plenty of oxygen.
What may be more surprising is that the science seems to confirm that attitude matters.
I saw this most clearly with my father. Our family has a rental real estate business. In August of 2008, one of our properties was partially destroyed by a microburst (a localized column of sinking air – the opposite of a tornado – which after it hits the ground can strongly bounce up). The wind came along and ripped the roof off of four units making them uninhabitable in a matter of seconds. Suddenly four previously rented units became four vacant units. Dad had allowed the “lost business” insurance to lapse and had no protection against such a massive injury to the business. At first, he believed that it would only take a couple of months to get everything back to “normal.” As the repairs were delayed again and again, his stress grew.
This was our version of a “perfect storm.” When you add high unemployment (resulting in higher vacancy rates and lower rents); lack of available credit; and negotiations between the insurance company, the homeowners association and multiple condominium owners that took six months; things just got worse and worse with no apparent end in sight. Results were out of his control and as this situation continued for over a year, we could see that the stress was taking a toll on him. He seemed to lose hope. In December of 2009, he deteriorated quickly over a couple of weeks. By the end of January, he was in an Alzheimer’s facility. He has continued to deteriorate over the past nine months.
To move so quickly from being “fine” (remember he did have undiagnosed bipolar disorder) to being unable to find his way home, all within a couple of weeks, is unusual. There just came a point where it was all too much… and he went away mentally.
We like to be in control. We like to believe that if something isn’t working right now, then there is some action we can take to fix things. Unfortunately, there are times in our lives when we’re in limbo – neither here nor there, not sure how to proceed. These times can be very unsettling, creating high levels of stress.
When we’re faced by high levels of uncertainty and a lack of control, we can start to question who we really are. I’ve always thought of myself as an emotionally strong person. As my family’s “perfect storm” has struck, we’ve tried many things to reduce the severity and duration of the storm. There are three of us with a wide variety of experiences and skills. And yet, we’ve been largely unsuccessful in dealing with the storm. Suddenly, it seems like the challenges we face are way too big for the skills that we’ve developed.
After you’ve spent months working on solving a problem (or several problems) and not succeeding, you begin to question whether you are who you thought you were. Am I really as strong as I thought I was? What has happened to my self-confidence… my ability to solve any problem… my ability to bounce back from adversity? When did I lose my pompoms?
I needed a way to get my feet back under me… to rebuild my strength… to find a way forward through the storm – since it just doesn’t seem to want to move on.
One way to reduce the stress caused by uncertainty in our lives and to regain our health is to define the things that are certain in our lives. In Magnificent Mind at Any Age, Dr. Daniel Amen recommends what he calls his One-Page Miracle. No matter what else is going on in our lives, Dr. Amen believes that we can identify what we want by breaking it down into four discrete areas:
- Relationships (with partner, children, extended family, friends)
- Work (defines issues like accomplishments, balance, goals)
- Finances (long-term and short-term; savings, investments, elimination of debt)
- Myself (physical health, spirituality, character, emotional health)
The One-Page Miracle makes specific what we believe about who we are and how we relate to the world. It doesn’t eliminate trouble. It does provide a compass to help with making decisions. Once completed, it reminds us who we are – because under stress we can sometimes lose our way or lose ourselves. It puts some certainty into our lives. It’s a place to start. And that’s a very healthy place to be.