So interesting to read the about the research, Sustained Experience of Emotion After Loss of Memory in Patients with Amnesia (abstract), published in the April 12, 2010 early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The University of Iowa researcher, Justin Feinstein, found that patients, while they could not retrieve memories, were able to feel and express emotions (more article links at the end of this post). While the research was conducted with amnesia patients, we had similar experiences with my husband’s 91-year-old mother during the later stages of dementia — right up to the day before she died.
Before each daily visit we would search for something, a picture, a cartoon from The New Yorker, a short piece to read to her, a picture or department store ad from the New York Times, something to do with Broadway musicals — anything from her past. Several times we even tried examples of glaring grammatical errors which, in pre-dementia days, she would gleefully identify. Movies, like Feinstein used in his research, were more difficult because Mother could not concentrate for long. (The iPad might have made a difference had it been around.)
Some activities were more successful than others, and a few failed miserably. More than a few times Mother retrieved a fleeting memory, and just about every effort brought a smile to her face. Occasionally she would laugh appreciatively. Half-an-hour later she might not remember what we did, but often she was still smiling so the emotion triggered lasted significantly longer than our little activity. Often, especially toward the end, if these activities occurred before a meal, the meal would proceed far more smoothly and with less frustration.
We developed this activity, feeling our way as we went along. What good luck for us and how exciting now to receive confirmation that our short activities were making her happier.
Fineman et al conclude, “As the number of individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other other forms of dementia reaches epidemic proportions, it will be imperative for society to follow a scientifically-informed standard of care for patients with memory impairments. Here we provide clear evidence showing that the reasons for treating amnesic patients with respect and dignity go beyond simple human morals.”