Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D.

Jeanne Murray Walker Ph. D.

The Geography of Memory

Alzheimer's: Who Says They're Speaking Giberish?

Can we communicate with the Lost Ones? Second in a Series

Posted Oct 19, 2013

 “Good for you,” I said.

 A Stranger Appeared in My Mother’s Life

 Then mother confided that a man had phoned and asked to visit her. He was nice enough, but she had explained to him that she wasn’t taking “social calls”. She hoped she hadn’t hurt his feelings.

Later that week, she mentioned that the same man had knocked at her door and introduced himself. He wasn’t from her building. She didn’t know him.

Several days later he knocked again. He wasn’t giving up. He couldn’t live without her, he told her. It was getting embarrassing, she said. She wondered how she could say no without wrecking his life.

She kept talking about this man all fall and winter. I thought of calling the desk at her assisted living facility. I hoped that strangers weren’t invading the place after dark. After all, the doors were kept locked. How could he get in? But I didn’t call, because I didn’t want to arouse attention. I was left to ponder why mother was obsessed with a character who—at least, I hoped-- did not exist.

Was He Real?

I began to believe that the gentleman might have been “real, at least in a way, at least to mother, even though he probably didn’t knock on her door. Her report might have been puzzling, but it wasn’t exactly crazy. She might have been imagining her own past so clearly that it felt to her as if it were happening again.

To her it might have felt like dreaming. When you dream, you see characters, including yourself, opening a door, say, walking through it, eating, getting into a car, driving, stopping for ice cream, standing in line. In your dream you could reach out and touch the people you see. The actions in a dream are, in a way, actually going on.

When I was a child, Mother described her boyfriends to me so colorfully and elaborated so enticingly on the gifts they brought her, the potted geranium, the framed landscape, the pail of raspberries, that I could see them in my mind’s eye. So when Mother told me about the man who knocked on her door, I figured, maybe she was reliving an experience with one of her suitors. Perhaps she was vividly re-imaging conflicts she had experienced.

That would explain the persistent gentleman caller.

A Theory About How Memory Works

I began paying closer attention to what Mother said. I started accepting, as a matter of faith that what she said could be made sense of as references not to the present but to the past. I believed that might be happening not just once in a while, but a lot of the time, even when she sounded really unhinged.

Other Researchers Confirm the Theory

And I wish that back then I had read Virginia Owens’ book, Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye Virginia Owens writes, “as time went by, I grew increasingly convinced of one thing, at least: [mother] had an underlying signification system, even in the midst of her dementia. Her intelligence was now entirely emotional. One understood it only by attending to metaphor, not logic.”

For me, care-taking became less lonely when I understood that my mother’s seemingly random gibberish might connect to and be explained by her history. I knew her history. I didn’t “get” all of her comments, but with practice, I began to understand a lot more of what she said. I actually began to look forward, again, to spending time with her.

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade. 


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 Stay tuned for another blog suggesting ways to communicate with Alzheimer’s patients