If you have been blessed to spend time with my mom, a friend, or loved one with Dementia, you may have come away in awe of their lifetime adventures.
My mom, for example jumped out of a plane at ten thousand feet, and parachuted safely to the ground with President George Bush. She also had a delicious luncheon with First Lady Barbara Bush on their veranda, overlooking that vast and endless expanse of brilliant blue ocean, at their home in Kennebunkport Maine. She then raced that beautiful and fascinating chestnut stallion, Secretariat, to its first place finish at the Kentucky Derby. In addition, she and my dad attended a Super Bowl, sitting right behind the bench on the 50 yard line, almost able to touch the players. She also survived that devastating collision with an iceberg, aboard the Titanic in April of 1912, thirteen years before she was born.
She lived an exciting and adventurous life in this otherworldly dimension, and her new memories gave her much pleasure as she boasted about these adventures. They made her happy.
My grandmother, while she was living with us also shared many stories that would have my younger brother Kevin and I howling, encouraging her to continue, much to my mom’s dismay.
These were pleasant and funny stories. Other times these tales were not, well…quite as nice.
Once, during a party at my home, thinking that a small bowl of dog kibbles left on the kitchen island was an appetizer, mom began to nibble. When my sister in law Cathy mentioned that she was eating the dog’s food, she defiantly blurted out that it didn’t taste any different than the rest of the garbage that I feed her.
Another time while at a doctors appointment that she didn’t want to attend, the doctor directly asked her why she was there, and what was the problem. She immediately pointed to me and responded that I was the problem, and the reason we were there. I still bust out laughing every time I recall the look of bewilderment on that doctors face.
There were times when she was living independently in her home, and before her diagnosis, that she would accuse her lifelong friend and neighbor of placing her garbage in my mom’s cans. She would actually sift through her cans looking for telltale evidence of her neighbor’s trash.
There were also times when mom would make rude remarks in public, pointing to someone and calling them fat, or make racial slurs, which was totally out of character for her.
Right along with the cognitive loss in dementia comes the loss of inhibitions, and for mom this started during moderate stage Dementia. Mom was losing her filter, and her sense of social norms.
And unlike the crazy stories which were imaginative, funny, and easy to go along with, these outbursts could be downright mean. Under those circumstances, the best I could do was to distract her, apologize to the offended, explaining that she had dementia, and move on.
Trying to correct mom or bring her back into reality was an exercise in frustration.
There is a word for these strange and crazy stories, and that is confabulation.
Confabulation is defined as a memory disturbance which produces fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive-Wikipedia
A lot of mom’s stories involved something that was going on at the time that she may have heard on the news, or read in the paper. She then took these stories and made them her own. This was her new reality.
Ultimately, Alzheimer’s will affect most of the brain, but the area, or lobe that controls our personality and behaviors, is the frontal lobe. So mom’s unsettling and embarrassing outbursts were the result of damage to that part of the brain.
As dementia steals our memories, other parts of our brain try to compensate by creating new ones, or coming up with reasonable substitutes.
So many of mom’s stories started in some form of reality, and morphed into fantasy. That is also why mom thought it was Christmas when her great granddaughter was opening her birthday gifts. She didn’t remember the reason she was there, or when Scarlett blew out the candles. She couldn’t recall that only moments before Scarlett started opening gifts, we had consumed cake and ice cream. When she saw Scarlett unwrapping the gifts, she just guessed, and Christmas was a good deduction.
She wanted to remember, to be vital, and present in the celebration. When she shared her colorful stories she wanted to connect, to remain valuable, and to be loved.
Confabulation is just a term that describes a disorder, or disturbance in the frontal lobe, and basal forebrain. But this condition was much more to mom, and me.
In the dense mist and fog of dementia, in a world full of confusion and memory loss, this allowed mom, much like a child, to fantasize and invent a life that she could only have dreamed of living.
It allowed her to be, if only for a moment, undiminished by dementia!
Dream on mom!