I read on the front of the newspaper today that previous estimates of how many people will become demented were wrong. Currently there are 900,000 people classed as having any of the various forms of dementia and these numbers are set to double by 2040 to 1.7 million.
The article went on to list some of the contributory factors as smoking, being overweight and being diabetic.
As I have written previously, the one thing that links the seven people I have known personally who developed dementia, is inactivity. Two of them sat for work by the hour. One was a university professor who wrote many papers. One was a potter. A couple sat because they were old and tired. My mother got up and sat down because she thought manual labour was the province of the working classes whereas she was a lady. SMIL sat throughout the pandemic in order not to be a bother to anyone. Whatever their reasons for sitting by the hour, they all did the same dangerous thing – they got up and sat down.
If you like to sit and watch television for much of the evening, it may be instructive to consider what you are doing if you take away the television. You are sitting staring at the wall. We have not evolved to sit and stare at a wall. What did people do before television? Victorians were famous for gathering round the piano for a sing song, doing acres of needlepoint, or taking boiled-down cow’s feet to the poor as broth, which the poor were grateful for, it being some years before a takeaway was thought of.
The other thing people did, if they wanted to eat, was cook, which you have to do standing up. All the other activities necessary for civilised life involved hours of rushing around or standing up too. My grandmother rose at five when she was eight years old to wash the other children’s cotton smocks. Her father helped by putting the fire on under the copper and pumping the big jug full of water.
When I stayed with her on a Saturday night in the nineteen fifties, she was still washing her smalls with a poss stick in the sink and tackling any stains with a washboard. She did have Daz, a modern clothes washing powder. If you were good you got some in your bath and came out fresh as a daisy.
I am terrified of inactivity because of the risk of developing dementia. For twenty three years I’ve started nearly every day with a work-out. I am not huge and muscular, I am short and tubby. I exercise at least an hour but often all morning. I do not do it to excess, I just do it enough to make my feet warm.
All the blood that is in your body goes through your brain every seven and a half minutes, taking out the trash, bringing nutrition and oxygen, I just plan to exercise enough to give it a push.
The other thing I do nearly every day is ring SMIL. She can very rarely talk now, occasionally she manages a goodbye. I just chatter about all the normal family things, what’s growing in the garden, the weather, what the grandchildren are up to, cheerful, positive news the main purpose of which is to let her know she is not forgotten.
I have discovered by empirical research, that the more often you contact your demented person at a distance, the less of a trial and a difficulty it is. I think starting early after diagnosis and making it a habit is the easiest way to approach the task both for the contacter and the demented relative. Recalling that recall is the problem, the longer the interval between contacts the more likely the contacter is to be met with blank looks, or a worse : who are you?
I have heard from quite a few relatives of terrible upset when their demented person had no idea who they were. They felt left out and ignored at best and deeply wounded at worst. We know that long term memory is on a different circuit from short term, what we had for breakfast, circuitry. Therefore the more often you contact, the more likely it is that the long term memory will be invoked. The brain is best at the things it practises most often. You don’t have to think how to walk, how to clean your teeth, how to go to sleep because you do them so often your brain has instituted short cuts to save time and save you working out how to do them each time. This is learning. If you want to be one of the things your thinking-challenged relative has learned, then frequent repetition is your friend.
It is not always easy to think what to say. I have days when I’ve dialled the number and have no idea what the next ten minutes will hold. There have been times when staff at the care home have not helped, or have put me off, or the telephone equipment has gone wrong, or something major has been happening. I am fortunate that the secretary is very personable and always bright and cheerful. She told me that very few relatives bother to contact their demented person at all.
Just imagine if you were told you had a disease of your brain. Then, when you’d absorbed that news being told there is no cure it will kill you. Then, just when you were wondering how you would manage, because you knew already that your memory was on the fritz, your family tell you they are going to sell your house and shut you up for the rest of your life in what we used to call (and you will think of if you are a certain age) as the looney bin.
No wonder people go nuts.
And then they never visit, never call and you know you are going insane, among strangers, until you die.
If you are among the sane and have a relative who is not, there is little you can do if closer relatives take the care home route early or immediately. What you can do is stay in touch. I consider fifteen minutes a day as a prayer of gratitude that it is not me.