My parents and I had the privilege of seeing and listening to a man who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2001. He has a PhD in Psychology and is one of the best speakers I have heard in a long time. His name is Richard Taylor, and he has dementia. Hard to believe. He could speak more fluently and eloquently than I could on my most lucid day. His message was as an advocate of people with dementia, to be treated with dignity and as if they are living, not dying. He says not to lie to people or walk into their delusions. He says we treat people with dementia as if they are getting more and more holes in them, when in reality, we are always whole, aren’t we?
As long as I can remember my father has verbalized his biggest fear: falling into the grips of dementia, hardening of the arteries, Alzheimer’s, senility, whatever the current phrase. At one point, my mother threw out all our aluminum pots and pans, when dementia was briefly linked to that. Working as long possible, volunteering as much possible, performing on stage, and doing daily crossword puzzles were all part of my parent’s antidote to the possibility of developing dementia. My father’s fear was largely due to watching his mother and other family members slowly lose their cognitive functioning, that being something my father made his livelihood on (teaching at the university level). My grandmother lived with us, as her dementia took hold. She wandered, repeated, forgot things, became paranoid, accusatory and finally combative. For some reason, I became the object of her ire. I always knew she didn’t like me, but it became pretty hostile when I was in high school, which I admit I didn’t really understand. By college, I could deal much better and even came home sometimes to keep an eye on her while my parents got away for the opera or to visit friends. Luckily for Dad, my husband remarks frequently how sharp his father-in-law’s mind and wits are.
The question I most wanted to ask Dr. Taylor was if he thought it was okay that our family uses humor to deal with the prospect of dementia amongst ourselves? What we do is call out “Minneapolis” as soon as someone (anyone, any age) tells a story we have heard before, most likely, many times before. The term comes from a memorable car trip with an aging relative in throes of dementia, who asked anyone and everyone approximately every five minutes, “Have you ever been to Minneapolis?” Minneapolis has spawned the term Dallas, which is when you know you are telling a Minneapolis story, but are doing it intentionally. The lastest wrinkle, is to call out Albuquerque when someone tells a story you’ve never heard before.
Dr. Taylor used a lot of humor in his talks, for example, he admitted to a phase of “wandering,” but said “I wasn’t wandering, I was going somewhere, I just don’t know where the hell I was going.” He also compared the tubing on an old enema bag to what he imagined hardening of the arteries to look like. If I had to guess, I would say he would approve of our humor, and when we we lose that, we just might be in trouble.