Happiness is a choice. Once you grasp the enormity of that, once you fully understand the implications of it, you can’t (and shouldn’t) let go. Because all throughout your life, at any given moment, in any place on this planet, no matter what the situation you find yourself in… you make the decision, consciously or not. Is this a good or a bad thing? Am I happy about it or am I going to let it ruin my day? If I’m not happy, am I going to let that negativity grow and thrive? Or am I going to drop that unhappy thought like a hot potato? You choose.
In Alzheimer’s World, this becomes a valuable coping mechanism. Three years ago, when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my mother went into a depression. She was sleeping long hours, showing “flat affect” (an absence of emotion), barely engaging with visitors, and weeping copious amounts of tears. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than not being able to help someone you love when they are distraught, and my mother’s sadness tainted everyone around her.
Little by little and bit by bit, though, the people around her – the caregivers, with bright smiles and ready laughter, my father, who loves telling goofy jokes, her best friend Sally, who has a great sense of humour – finally got through to her. She started wanting to be happy. She started playing around more with the caregivers, who then encouraged her to be more silly. Whether it was just “sashaying down the hall” to get ready for bed, singing at the top of our lungs to some old love song from the 50s, doing bad imitations or making funny faces – we found Mom’s happy place.
That change precipitated a few more. Mom is getting up earlier. She’s gone from never wanting to leave the house to being nervously eager to accompany me on shopping trips and out to lunch. I encourage this by reminding her of how many babies we might spot when we’re out and about, because seeing babies makes her “light up” with joy. Last week, we had lunch together, just the two of us, for the first time in years.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are still days when Mom gets discouraged and weepy. That’s when we give her space, hugs and quiet time. And there are times when we try to be silly and she gets angry. “That’s not funny,” she’ll bark and then glare at us, as we foolishly remove the napkin that we put on our head or the stuffed animal that we were using as a puppet.
This is not something I’ve read in any of the research about dementia. Even with limited memories, both my parents have been able to integrate/learn new behaviours, over time and with repetitive insistence on our part. You say you can’t teach an old dog with Alzheimer’s new tricks? Not so. I’m convinced that they do learn, they just learn slowly and only if it makes sense to them.
We all like to be surrounded by smiling faces. Isn’t the nicest feeling in the world walking towards someone you love, seeing them brighten at the sight of you, and enjoying that surge of affection you both share? It seems my parents have realized that, even with all the challenges they face daily, making other people happy makes them happy, too.
Happiness. Positive reinforcement. Silly moments. Repeat as necessary.