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How do I get back the happy memories taken by dementia?

Happy_memories_taken_by_dementia_headerHello Lesley,

I like the site very much and wish I had known of it when supporting my elderly parents.

Both my parents have passed away now but the journey was hard. They both lived into their 80s but my mother was in a home for nearly eight years, suffering with dementia and my father lived nearly two years after her and he also had dementia towards the end.

How can one keep the happy memories alive of times before they were so unwell and really lost their personalities?

Thank you for your advice.

D

Lesley says

Hello D

Glad to hear you like the site – hopefully you will recommend When They Get Older to your friends!

It must have been very hard for you to see both parents end their lives with dementia and, no doubt, providing support to them as they declined. It’s only natural that when you think about them now, you remember the last few years of their lives when things were so difficult even though they were hardly the same people who brought you up.

When I visit my mother in her care home, I’m struck by the fact that I am seeing a snapshot of the residents, in the last phase of their lives. Even with the best of care, many have lost much of their vitality. Some maintain their personalities but others are changed by disability or illnesses or just diminished by age. Dementia sufferers appear angry, frustrated, child-like, lost. It seems so sad to compare this picture with the photographs that appear on the doors of their rooms – happy family scenes where they are years younger and full of life.

Coping with the long goodbye

I don’t know how the final years were for you with your mother and then your father. Your parents might have become anxious or aggressive. They might have forgotten who you were or muddled you up with someone else. Perhaps they blamed you for their condition or took out their frustrations on you. They might have simply withdrawn and then lost the ability to communicate.

During this “long goodbye” we have to find ways of coping. Perhaps by withdrawing ourselves or becoming overly protective.

When a parent dies, it’s nearly always a time of huge adjustment for the children. Where the mother or father has dementia, the feelings can be even more complex. Is it right to feel relief – an end to their suffering, an end to our own ambiguous and confused feelings? Is it possible to go through the “normal” phases of grieving when we already started being aware of the “loss” while they were alive? It takes a long time to move on.

Good memories ease moving on

To address your question directly: I hope you have been able to let go of some of the more difficult feelings now, move forward with your own life and maintain some more positive memories of your parents. But it does take time and can be years before that happens.

You may be able to help this process by making a specific effort to remember how they were when they were younger. Here are some suggestions for how to do that:

  • Talk to other family members and to your parents’ contemporaries and ask them what they remember about your mum and dad. Ask them to tell you about your parents’ achievements, their struggles, funny things that happened to them.
  • Dig out some old photos. Take time to reminisce either on your own or with a partner or family friend.
  • It could also help to talk to your own children (if you have any) or nieces and nephews about your parents. This will bring back happier memories for you and also pass on more positive memories to the younger generation.
  • Try making a new photograph album - or create a folder online - that tells the story of how your parents met, their daily lives, holidays, friends, work, interests and key milestones. Include pictures of your own childhood growing up with them.
  • If you kept any old diaries that you wrote earlier in life it could help to reread them. Or it can help to find an object that your mother or father were very fond of - an ornament, a picture or a piece of jewellery, say, and to use that to stimulate positive memories.

When the ending is so difficult, people can feel that they just want to forget all about it and get on with the rest of their lives. Reminiscing can be painful and tearful but gradually we adjust.

Putting the end in perspective

Over time you may be able to put the final years into context. You’ll acknowledge that their ending was sad and very different from what you wanted or expected. But you’ll also have fond memories of your childhood with your parents, times where they supported you, important moments in their lives together. Pictures in your mind – or in a photograph album – of happier days.

If you try some of these things, we’d love you to drop us an email to tell others what worked for you. Wishing you the best of luck.

Lesley

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat.

If you found this article helpful you may like to read:
A reader’s strategy for coping with grief
Remembering the real mum

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