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Finding Meaning in Dementia: Connecting with Loved Ones

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A child talks with her mom with Dementia
Learn how moments of joy and presence can transcend language barriers and create lasting memories.

Growing up with grandparents whose first language was Italian was always a struggle when communicating, but we managed. My brothers and I always found ways to get our messages across, and more often than not, it led to some funny interactions.


As a child, it can be hard to grasp the concept of aging and its implications. Unfortunately, my family experienced a devastating blow when my Nonno (grandfather) was diagnosed with prostate cancer and passed away shortly after. The impact of this loss was particularly rough on my Nonna (grandmother). At the time, she was nearing her 80s, and the loss of her husband took a toll on her mental well-being. She was diagnosed with dementia and gradually lost the ability to care for herself. Initially, we hired a live-in aide to assist her, but eventually, we had to downsize her to an apartment because the house became too difficult for her to navigate.


Over the next few years, her dementia worsened, and we were informed that she could no longer form new memories. Communicating with her became increasingly challenging as she slowly lost her ability to speak and understand English. Nevertheless, seeing her smile light up whenever we visited was heartwarming. Learning that she could no longer create new memories was a bitter pill to swallow. It felt like there was no point in visiting for a while since she wouldn't remember any of it. Life became busy, and our priorities shifted.

Consequently, my visits became less frequent as the struggle to communicate intensified. Often, we would sit together in silence, simply trying to cherish each other's company. My older brothers made more effort to engage with her, speaking to her as if she could respond, even though she seldom did.


Visiting her became challenging for a while. We would sit there, attempting to share stories about our day and inquire about her well-being, but there was never a real conversation. When she did speak, it would be a few words in English, or sometimes she would switch to Italian, assuming we understood. While we could grasp some of the words, most of the time, she spoke too quickly and extensively for us to comprehend her meaning fully. So we would pretend to understand and nod along with her, realizing that she didn't recognize the language she was using or that we were unable to understand it. When my dad accompanied us on visits, things were easier since he could translate and convey her messages. However, he could only join us sometimes as we had different schedules.


Despite not visiting as often as we should, my brothers and I still try to see her whenever possible. However, it remains disheartening that we can't truly communicate and rely on our dad and his siblings to update us on her well-being. She has some difficult days when she becomes confused and believes she is back in Italy. Not being able to help her in those moments has caused tremendous guilt for my brother and me. We feel guilty for not being able to communicate effectively and guilty for feeling guilty, knowing that we aren't the ones suffering. All we can do is continue to spend time with her, learn more about the language, and offer our presence.


During one of our visits, without my dad present, we brought her lunch and sat at the table together. It was during this time that I had a realization. As we shared a story, it was evident that she was missing most of it, yet she appeared genuinely happy. Having us there, spending time and sharing a meal brought her joy. The fact that she might not remember the lunch we had the next day didn't matter because, at that moment, she was content. After this realization, our visits took on a newfound sense of purpose. It no longer mattered what she would or wouldn't remember; what mattered was living in the present and providing her with a few hours of happiness whenever we could. And that, without a doubt, is something we will never forget.


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Finding Meaning in Dementia: Connecting with Loved Ones

Updated: Aug 23, 2023


A child talks with her mom with Dementia
Learn how moments of joy and presence can transcend language barriers and create lasting memories.

Growing up with grandparents whose first language was Italian was always a struggle when communicating, but we managed. My brothers and I always found ways to get our messages across, and more often than not, it led to some funny interactions.


As a child, it can be hard to grasp the concept of aging and its implications. Unfortunately, my family experienced a devastating blow when my Nonno (grandfather) was diagnosed with prostate cancer and passed away shortly after. The impact of this loss was particularly rough on my Nonna (grandmother). At the time, she was nearing her 80s, and the loss of her husband took a toll on her mental well-being. She was diagnosed with dementia and gradually lost the ability to care for herself. Initially, we hired a live-in aide to assist her, but eventually, we had to downsize her to an apartment because the house became too difficult for her to navigate.


Over the next few years, her dementia worsened, and we were informed that she could no longer form new memories. Communicating with her became increasingly challenging as she slowly lost her ability to speak and understand English. Nevertheless, seeing her smile light up whenever we visited was heartwarming. Learning that she could no longer create new memories was a bitter pill to swallow. It felt like there was no point in visiting for a while since she wouldn't remember any of it. Life became busy, and our priorities shifted.

Consequently, my visits became less frequent as the struggle to communicate intensified. Often, we would sit together in silence, simply trying to cherish each other's company. My older brothers made more effort to engage with her, speaking to her as if she could respond, even though she seldom did.


Visiting her became challenging for a while. We would sit there, attempting to share stories about our day and inquire about her well-being, but there was never a real conversation. When she did speak, it would be a few words in English, or sometimes she would switch to Italian, assuming we understood. While we could grasp some of the words, most of the time, she spoke too quickly and extensively for us to comprehend her meaning fully. So we would pretend to understand and nod along with her, realizing that she didn't recognize the language she was using or that we were unable to understand it. When my dad accompanied us on visits, things were easier since he could translate and convey her messages. However, he could only join us sometimes as we had different schedules.


Despite not visiting as often as we should, my brothers and I still try to see her whenever possible. However, it remains disheartening that we can't truly communicate and rely on our dad and his siblings to update us on her well-being. She has some difficult days when she becomes confused and believes she is back in Italy. Not being able to help her in those moments has caused tremendous guilt for my brother and me. We feel guilty for not being able to communicate effectively and guilty for feeling guilty, knowing that we aren't the ones suffering. All we can do is continue to spend time with her, learn more about the language, and offer our presence.


During one of our visits, without my dad present, we brought her lunch and sat at the table together. It was during this time that I had a realization. As we shared a story, it was evident that she was missing most of it, yet she appeared genuinely happy. Having us there, spending time and sharing a meal brought her joy. The fact that she might not remember the lunch we had the next day didn't matter because, at that moment, she was content. After this realization, our visits took on a newfound sense of purpose. It no longer mattered what she would or wouldn't remember; what mattered was living in the present and providing her with a few hours of happiness whenever we could. And that, without a doubt, is something we will never forget.


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