This is my description of what happens to a person’s brain when they have Alzheimer’s disease.
When we are born, our brain is full of well lit, airy, vacant rooms with an open window in each one. Knowledge and experiences flow through the open windows to fill the rooms as we grow, and flow back out as we mentally call on them to create the type of human being we become. Imagine if by the time you are in your sixties, you was to find yourself searching for a thought in the memory room. You find that the room had become dark, the drapes are drawn. You strain to see the familiar object you are searching for in your mind, trying to remember what it looked like the last time you saw it, but you can’t find that object in the dark.
That’s what happens to a person who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. One such person was a large framed, boisterous farmer who spoke with a loud voiced, salty vocabulary. First, the memory room in his brain became dark, then other rooms darkened as they were covered with a black shroud called plaque that continued slowly to spread from room to room.
As it entered the open windows, the plaque closed them, and the drapes drew shut to put out the light. As this happened to the farmer, he became a shell of the man his family and friends once knew and was admitted to a care center. In time, he forgot how to feed himself, had trouble swallowing, couldn’t do his activities of daily living skills, and could barely stand long enough to transfer from the bed to the wheelchair. The only vocabulary he had left was loud, frustrated profanity unless he chose to parrot short sentences he heard from the aides such as "It’s time to eat.", or "It’s bedtime.".
There came a time when the farmer quit repeating what he heard. His face became expressionless, and his eyes stared vacantly. I was sure that most of the windows in his brain had shut, became locked, and would never reopen again. I was wrong!
Since the farmer was in his room most of the day, I had taken to sitting him in the living room with the other residents after the evening meal. I hoped people talking, and Vanna White flashing across the television screen would stimulate his mind. As time went by, I gave up hope that what I was doing would trigger anything in the farmer that I would see outwardly, but I consoled myself with the idea that I didn’t know what was happening inside those dark rooms in his brain. You know how the window frames in an old house doesn’t fit quite tight, and a small amount of air seeps between the sills and the frames? I thought maybe that might be how the windows in the farmer’s mind were working so I felt I shouldn’t give up trying to stimulate him even if I couldn’t see I was helping him.
One evening at bedtime, I pushed the farmer’s wheelchair across the living room. As we neared a visitor, sitting by his wife, the visitor reached out his hand and patted the farmer’s knee.
"Hello," the visitor greeted.
"Hello," the farmer returned in his booming voice, and he called the man by name. The blank expression on the farmer’s face changed to one of joy at seeing an old friend.
"He knows you!" I exclaimed in surprise as I realized the farmer recognized the visitor, and he actually spoke without repeating another person’s sentence. The farmer’s eyes remained focused on the visitor.
"He should," the visitor replied. "We’ve been friends for years, and we were both on the board of a business in town for a long time, weren’t we?"
"Yes," the farmer answered with gusto.
I could see a calm look of contentment on his face as the memory room’s window crept open to let out the memories I had been so sure were trapped forever in darkness.
"We went to a lot of those board meetings together," the visitor continued. He patted the farmer’s knee again as he said, "This is the man who made a lot of the important decision at the meetings, didn’t you?"
Tears welled up in the farmer’s eyes as he struggled to grasp memories long forgotten. I hated to see him so sad, and I didn’t want this to be an uncomfortable situation for him or the visitor so I tried to add a little humor to the conversation.
"Oh, sure! Were those important decisions what time to go get the beer after the meetings were over?"
Both men laughed at my teasing as the farmer slowly boomed out, "Yes!"
Then I explained to the visitor that it was the farmer’s bedtime so he had to leave. By the time I had wheeled the farmer the short distance down the hall into his room and closed the door, hiss face was expressionless again. His eyes stared vacantly, focused on the drapes behind his bed which were closed across the window just like the pair that darkened the window that had shut again in his mind.
For all my trying, I hadn’t been the one to open a window for the farmer, but that’s all right because I was there to see it happen, and that was enough incentive to make me keep trying.
Published in Open A Window – Alzheimer’s Caregiver Handbook by Fay Risner CNA ISBN 1438244991
And in Jolene Brackey’s book Creating Moments Of Joy –third edition
Excerpt from Open A Window – Alzheimer’s Caregiver Handbook
Windows In The Brain