A State of Mind: Preserving Family Memories

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Amateur astronomer Stargazer Li, PhD, says, “We are literally made of our ancestors, their physicality and their experiences, their places and times, their hopes and fears… For us to be at home in our bodies and lives, to have a sense of connection and continuity that can foster respect, we must know our ancestry.”

This has never been truer than with today’s seniors, who are living longer than ever before.

William Fralin, president of Chronic Care Advocacy, observes, “We all have aging family members. Some of us are the ‘oldest generation’ in our family line. How do we preserve family? One way is through interactions with succeeding generations. Cell phone photographs of family gatherings are great for capturing moments in time, but how do you truly pass along ‘the family’?

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“Involve your children in their aging family members’ lives — visit, encourage family history relating and documenting, have the younger members of the family begin a family history book, have them interview family members of all generations to gather family stories and anecdotes — just get involved.

“Despite time constraints and the re-structuring of the modern family, time spent learning about [elders’] stories can enrich everyone’s lives, from the youngest member to the most senior. Your older family members will be gone before you know it, so preserve what you can, going forward.”

One excellent way reverse mortgage professionals can learn more about specific issues facing older adults  — which can impact family history — is via the ElderSource Institute’s online training programs, which cover a range of issues. These virtual workshops aren’t scheduled; you can access and complete classes online on your own time.

Some of the pertinent topics covered include caregiver training, disability sensitivity and inclusion, elder abuse awareness and prevention — and dementia care provisions, which can be especially relevant and poignant if someone you know is experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

When History Becomes A Mystery

Preserving family history is particularly critical in the case of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease (EOAD):

Fralin cites the case of women’s college basketball coach Pat Summitt, who entered the national spotlight with her EOAD diagnosis in 2011, when she was just 59. She died two weeks after her 64th birthday in 2016, a sad conclusion to a glorious life and career.

While early-onset Alzheimer’s accounts for only about five percent of the more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, the consequences of EOAD are devastating on many levels. Those afflicted can be in mid-life and mid-career, still raising a family. The additional caregiving burden and loss of income can be fraught with stress for the spouse and other family members, including the affected person’s elderly parents, who may need assistance themselves.

Due to the progressive nature of the disease, someone diagnosed with EOAD needs to plan for the future now. Aside from the transition of responsibilities at work and at home, legal and financial planning is crucial. The diagnosed individual must determine who will be responsible for financial and medical decisions as their own cognition declines. It’s also essential to share those potent memories and moments with loved ones while there’s still time.

The information we discussed with respect to elder orphans can be useful for those with EOAD: a community of support in a difficult time. In addition, the National Institute on Aging provides a comprehensive resource list for those living with and/or caring for someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory and history make us who we are. Understanding what your reverse mortgage families may face — even if it’s the children of your clients, rather than the seniors themselves, who are confronting a major health crisis — increases your value as a trusted elder resource.

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You Must Remember This

Memory Goes Digital

In the Harry Potter novels, the professors at Hogwarts (and presumably other magical people as well) have the ability to remove a gossamer strand of memory from their minds and deposit it elsewhere for safekeeping, or to share visually with others. Wouldn’t it be terrific to have such powers?

We’re getting surprisingly close. Now there’s a “cognitive assistant” that will function as a personal search engine for memories, so that, once the assistant learns your mind and behaviors, you’ll be able to search for “Where did I put my health insurance card?” and receive a specific answer. Spooky cool.

While we’ve explored a backup memory app, smart ways for seniors to age-proof their brains, the importance of creativity in maintaining brain health and some tried-and-true methods to keep the hippocampus sharp, being able to Google your own memories breaks new ground.

Googling Your Mind

reverse mortgage newsApplied neuroscience inventor James Kozloski envisions specific applications for aging — especially for those who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s. “The loss of ability to access memory in the moment is the beginning of the breakdown of normal cognitive function: the ability of individuals to interact with others, take care of themselves, clothe themselves, cook meals,” he said.

Imagine “if your cognitive assistant knew that when you dial a certain person’s phone number — your niece, let’s say — it should also remind you of the name of her husband. The system might also know that, because of the time of day when you’re calling, the husband is more likely to pick up the phone. Or that, by checking a calendar, it happens to be his birthday.

“‘All of that context becomes the basis for inference as to what name should be spoken when they pick up the phone,’ Kozloski said.”

How Memory Loss Can Heal Relationships

And sometimes, memory loss can result in a familial healing, as Sheryl Hirsch-Kramer relates in this touching story of her mother’s dementia, “celebrating her magnificent spirit and the extraordinary help both she and I received during the 21 months she lived in memory care. With fierce honesty, Hirsch-Kramer acknowledges the gifts in her mother’s memory loss:

“My mom was beautiful, brilliant, kind, unique, and dearly loved. We had an awful relationship for the first 43 years and a beautiful relationship for the final 15 years. You have taught me the power of reaching for more in all of my relationships. You have taught me what can happen when we surround ourselves with people who truly love us and distance ourselves from those who can’t or don’t. And you have taught me things through partnering with you during your final years that will make me a better, a more caring person for the rest of my life.”

Perhaps sweetest of all, there’s now a multimedia memory time capsule that can serve as the repository of an elder’s life and wisdom. Even Hogwarts didn’t have that.

Thanks for the Memories

reverse mortgage newsAt a certain point, most of us start to feel it: the reaching for a word just beyond our grasp, the mental note to do something we forget by the time we enter the next room. It’s not necessarily dementia; more likely a severe case of digital overload and multitasking mania. Yet books and films like Still Alice, in which a Harvard linguistics professor descends into early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (EOAD) at age 50, can hit a little too close to home. Who are we if we can’t remember?

In Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories, memory expert James McGaugh of the University of California/Irvine writes: “We are, after all, our memories. It is our memory that enables us to value everything else we possess. Lacking memory, we would have no ability to be concerned about our hearts, hair, lungs, libido, loved ones, enemies, achievements, failures, incomes or income taxes. Our memory provides us with an autobiographical record and enables us to understand and react appropriately to changing experiences. Memory is the ‘glue’ of our personal existence.”

Michael Gambon understands McGaugh’s dictum viscerally: after portraying the wise Hogwarts headmaster in six Harry Potter films, the 74-year-old actor announced his retirement from live theatre, citing an inability to remember his lines. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, fortunately. But there are a surprising number of unsuspected causes of memory loss, including sleep apnea, vitamin B12 deficiency (which can also lead to pernicious anemia), medications, and urinary tract infections, which can mimic dementia in the elderly.

How can a reverse mortgage specialist or senior client (or their loved ones) determine whether memory loss is a symptom of underlying disease?

  • Flamingo pose. If someone can’t balance on one leg for at least 20 seconds, their brain health may be compromised. Scientists found those unable to sustain a one-legged stance to have cerebral small vessel disease, which can lead to vascular dementia (i.e., stroke). But seniors shouldn’t assume they are at risk if they fail the balance test: as we age, vision can become cloudy, hearing may decline, joints stiffen, and proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space) worsens. All of these factors need to be checked before drawing any conclusions about balance — which is more challenging for older adults for these very reasons.
  • Skin test for Alzheimer’s Disease. Scientists have discovered the abnormal proteins that accumulate in the brain are also present in skin, and a skin test is in development.

The good news? While we’ve explored how to care for your brain before, especially the deep value of lifelong creativity, today there are a plethora of ways to age-proof your brain at any life stage:

  1. Be the belle of the ball. One longtime reverse mortgage specialist is also a longtime ballroom dancing devotee. Turns out his passion for dance is ensuring a healthier brain as he ages! Seniors who danced three to four times a week — especially those who ballroom danced — had a 75% lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all, according to a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s a pretty impressive health score. The lead geriatrician on the study says, “Dancing is a complex activity that improves blood flow to the brain, which has been shown to improve brain connections. It also provides mental challenges.”
  2. Tickle the ivories. Playing any instrument — piano, guitar, sax, etc. for ten years or longer correlates with better memory in old age than those who played for fewer years — but any musical enjoyment is better than none; even listening to music boosts the brain.
  3. Parlez Francais. Learning a foreign tongue stretches the gray matter and builds cognitive reserve.
  4. Make a fourth for Bridge. Bingo and card games aren’t simply the province of older adults because they have the time to play; games that engage the brain, such as chess, checkers, bingo, Scrabble, and Monopoly, buy us more quality mental time.
  5. Read deep. Skip the link-happy online browsing and settle down with a good book or some in-depth magazine articles. Focused attention promotes better brain health, because new information is absorbed rather than overflowing down the mental fatigue drain.
  6. Stay social. This is a confirmed memory-protector: take a leaf from Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard and “Engage!”

What if, despite someone’s best efforts, their brain succumbs to dementia? In this inspiring TEDtalk, one teen shares his simple invention, now in beta, designed to keep his night-wandering grandfather safe: a sensor-based technology that tracks where a senior goes from the moment their feet touch the floor, and sends ongoing updates to a caregiver’s smartphone. Clearly, many Millennials have their elders’ welfare at heart.