New findings give hope to Alzheimer’s patients, their caregivers

Tuesday, May 25
May 25, 2010
Thursday, May 27
May 27, 2010

Since I retired, I have been working part-time for Hospice groups helping individuals and their families prepare for the death of a loved one.

Hospice groups provide high quality health-care services to patients and their families. They help patients and families deal with end-of-life issues, both spiritually and physically. Compassionate health-care professionals provide comfort, care and important information for those who are facing death.

While death can come to anyone in various situations in life – accidents, heart and liver problems, AIDS, etc. – the most common causes I encounter are cancer-related or people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

I know of some difficulties and pain that those dying of cancer experience. My sister died of cancer almost nine years ago. However, I believe that Alzheimer and dementia patients and their families deal with a disease far more frustrating, especially in the latter stages because it is difficult to “get through” to the patient, who often forgets the name and faces of their nearest relatives.

Another sad part to this disease is that family members sometimes “give up” on the patient and do not visit them because they feel it is fruitless.

Often, we hear family members say, “Oh, I don’t go and visit Dad anymore because 10 minutes after I leave, he doesn’t even remember I came.” However, although the mind does not recognize a love one, the feelings are still alive in their hearts.

This is good news for families dealing with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. A recent study of patients with amnesia finds that the emotion tied to a memory lingers in the mind even after the memory is gone.

The findings, published in the journal “Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences,” have important implications for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. The article states that one of the loneliest things about loving someone with early Alzheimer’s is the feeling that any good times the two shared no longer mattered.

Justin Feinstein, a graduate student in neuropsychology at the University of Iowa, had a hunch that those visits made more of an impression than anyone realized. To check this out, he turned to several people who had damage to a spot in the brain called the hippocampus.

If you damage your hippocampus, you can’t hang onto new memories for more than a few minutes. Your brain is no longer able to catch onto those experiences, so your day-to-day experiences, like what you had for breakfast this morning, what you did last Saturday night, those are gone.

However, Feinstein suspected that the good and bad feelings triggered by meaningful events might linger, captured by a different part of the brain. Using various experiments – like watching sad movies – Feinstein found that everyone who watched the film was visibly moved – some to tears. Yet a half-hour later, when quizzed about the movie, they did not remember a thing about the film.

Feinstein tested the memories, which were gone; but what happened to the emotions? Well, the emotions were still sad. When asked by the psychologist why were they sad, the audience had no idea.

Now, here is the good news: When Feinstein and his colleagues repeated the experiment showing the same people clips from funny or uplifting movies, it put everybody in a great mood. Those good feelings outlasted their memories, too.

So remember, the next time you spend time with someone with Alzheimer’s, share your love and do not be afraid to make physical contact. Your visit could actually have enormous positive benefits for you both. This will make an emotional difference. Keep your visits short, but loving.