According to one strand of received wisdom, Alzheimers brings about a kind of regression: whereas a small child gradually learns skills such as walking, talking or handling cutlery, and builds mental models of the world, a person with dementia loses these skills in roughly the opposite order. In this model, my mother-in-law Mollie, who has almost completely lost the ability to read, walks with great difficulty and is rarely able to finish even a simple sentence, is almost back to infancy. The fact that as often as not she doesn’t have her teeth in might seem to confirm the impression. I don’t think it’s right.
Yesterday I dropped in for a short visit in the middle of the afternoon. She greeted me cheerfully, though not with any obvious sign that she knew me as more than a friendly stranger. After a mainly one-way conversation about the weather, I cast about and found a small picture book called Wild Animals to read to her. The book is exactly what you’d expect – photos of elephants, bears, cockatoos (in the Exotic Birds section), zebras, with a scattering of text. Mollie and I made our way through it, admiring the photos and occasionally referring to the text. Mollie was alert and responded with interest to everything I had to say. She singled out an ocasional word in a heading – Birds she could say; Owls she pointed to, and asked (‘That, that…?’) for help. When we came to an image of a bat, she traced the outline of its wings with a finger, saying, ‘Lovely.’ ‘Good,’ she said a number of times, and when I replied, ‘Beautiful,’she smile in a gratified way.
And you know, extremely limited as the conversation was, it was a conversation. I wasn’t conducting a kind of learning session in reverse, a test of her powers of cognition. We found a place where we could share the world, person to person, no big deal, enjoying each other’s company and pushing the dementia to the side for a moment, rather than having it the subject. I think Penny does this with Mollie all the time.