I know I’m dating myself but some of you may remember the 50’s t.v show “You Bet Your Life.” It was hosted by the comical Groucho Marx with the help of his sidekick George Fenneman and one of the aspects of the show was the “Secret Word.” “Say the secret word and the duck comes down and you win $50.00. It’s a common word, something that you see or use everyday,” Groucho would say. Well todays secret word is “Anosognosia” and if you’re a formal or informal caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimer’s it’s not a common word but it is something you may be dealing with everyday.
Like dementia itself, anosognosia is a symptom that prevents your loved one from realizing that their behaviors are potentially harmful to them. You may recall one of the 3 things that I always share with my readers and my audiences is to never forget that it is the illness that is responsible for their behaviors. Their memory loss, the fact that they are now using foul language, maybe they can no longer use utensils or they no longer recognize you or other family members, they’re paranoid, have trouble finding the right words; it’s all related to the illness. One of the best examples of anosognosia in action was a scene in a documentary called The Alzheimer’s Project produced by The Alzheimer’s Association and HBO. (You can see this whole four part series by going to either alz.org or YouTube). This woman is about to take a driving exam and her daughter warns her that she will probably lose her license. Her response? “You’re taking away my independence.” Not surprisingly, this woman that couldn’t even find reverse and almost got into a head on collision, failed the test. Her response to being told? “You’re taking away my independence.” The fact that she was no longer able to follow simple instructions and almost killed herself and others by almost causing a head on collision never registered with her. She wasn’t being thoughtless, insensitive, selfish or inconsiderate. The anosognosia prevented her from being able to comprehend that she was putting her life and the lives of others in jeopardy. Going for a walk in their bathrobe and slippers in January? Anosognosia. Refusing to take critical medications that will keep them well? Anosognosia.
I’m always putting myself in the shoes of someone with dementia almost every day and caregivers should be doing the same thing. Their behaviors are often really reactions but what they’re reacting too may not be so easy to figure out. Recently a very good friend mentioned that he had “floaters” in his eyes. In fact, he had one the other day that made him think that maybe he had seen a mouse running across the floor. How would someone with dementia react to a situation like that? I don’t know about you but although I’m still very active, years of football, carrying 3 to 4 cords of wood into the house every winter for the last 45 years and other such efforts have taken a toll on me. The point? When I get up in the morning I pretty much creak and pop like everyone else. If the situation calls for it, like the day or two after I stack a cord of firewood, I’m able to run to the medicine cabinet for a couple of pills to help me feel better. I can only imagine what I’ll feel like at 82. How many of your loved ones wake up with routine aches and pains that they can’t tell you about? That may explain why they’re not a lot of fun first thing in the morning.
You may not find anosognosia in the Times Crossword puzzle but it’s a word you should know and one that will help you better understand what’s behind many of your loved ones behaviors. Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the Journey.