Tending Miss Emily: dementia or forgetfulness?

Published 10:44 am Monday, September 16, 2019

I try not to fake it. But when someone begins a sentence with “Don’t you remember when…” or “You remember so and so, don’t you?” I fear both statements because often I don’t remember. And what do you say after the question? “No, I don’t”? Most likely, you say, “Sure, I remember.” Sometimes I am brave enough to say, “No, I don’t. Would you refresh my memory?”

So why do we pretend to remember? People are insulted when you don’t remember. Supposedly, if you care about someone, you remember their names, their children and the events surrounding them. It is assumed that you don’t care if you don’t value the person enough to remember. This misconception is what my mother went through. This is why when Mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, she faked remembering. When asked her age, Mother, a retired banker, would respond, “I was born in 1904, you figure it out!” People with dementia can still be clever. In the early stages, she often faked remembering people on the street; she’d smile and speak in generalities, but afterwards she’d ask, “Who was THAT?!” Eventually in later stages, she couldn’t fake it anymore.

People who reach the “Golden Years” tend to forget things occasionally. Forgetting is even expected. But there is a gray area. Struggling to decide when to worry about memory is always on the minds of those of us who have Alzheimer’s on our family tree. How much are we expected to remember to be labeled, “normal” — for our age? The scariest part is how much must we forget to be diagnosed with “dementia.” That’s the fuzzy area — dementia isn’t black and white. It’s gray for some of us. This, too, is what my mother had to face. She felt normal, so why were people contradicting her?

“Mother, you just told me that!”

“No, I didn’t !”

And in her mind, she truly didn’t remember telling me.

Once I started educating myself about dementia by reading the textbook of Alzheimer’s, “The 36-Hour Day,” I learned that the 12th time Mother said something to me was the first time to her. How tough it must have been for her to see my face of annoyance and disapproval. It took me a long time to begin to empathize with Mother’s forgetfulness and learn to change my facial expression.

Now, older and fearing dementia, I often become paranoid when I forget why I entered a room, where I put my keys or the name of my friend’s daughter. Luckily, I have learned these are not signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Again, “The 36-Hour Day” states that it isn’t losing the keys, but forgetting what keys are used for that can indicate Alzheimer’s disease. Learning about normal forgetfulness versus serious memory loss can eliminate some of the worry of dementia in yourself or in a loved one.

Come to the Walk to De-feet Dementia & Expo on Oct. 5, 9 a.m. to noon, at First Baptist Church in Washington, for free information about forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. For more information, contact Emily Albera at 252-944-3446 or emilyalbera@gmail.com, or go online to www.dementianc.org/washington2019.

Emily Albera was a caregiver for her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and is one of the organizers of the Walk to De-feet Dementia & Expo.