Emotional causes of Alzheimer’s | Dementia- my mom’s story

Alzheimher’s has the unique distinction of being the only disease that makes you say goodbye twice. First you say goodbye to the person you love, then you say goodbye to a stranger.

-Brains McGee in a YouTube comment of a video

Recently I am seeing a consistent pattern in a few people with Alzheimer’s disease whom I know personally. One of them is my beloved mother. In this article, I would like to share with you the emotional events and her method of coping that gradually leads to her brain cells breaking down, leading on to Alzheimer’s.

Initially, I had suspected the emotional cause of it but eventually dismissed it after I was given a good enough medical reason that could possibly lead to her illness. However, I could no longer deny the obvious correlation of all these ladies whom I know personally that also had Alzheimer’s.

Please see if what I described below applies to the loved one that you know who is either showing early symptoms or already have Alzheimer’s. Because Alzheimer’s or dementia tend to occur in older folks, sometimes their thinking patterns are already set hence by the time you realize it, there is nothing much that can be done. It may be at least to them, a merciful disease because it enabled them to block the emotional pain that they have been feeling.

Emotional causes of Alzheimer’s based on my observation:

Deep hurt due to perceived feelings of rejection and using denial as the main coping mechanism for any trauma, disappointments or grief in life.

This is akin to what my mom love to advise me when dealing with sadness or rejection… “think of yourself as having a duck’s back. A duck’s back never get wet when water is poured on them. So if they hurt you or let you down, you just couldn’t be bothered. Her favourite phase was “just couldn’t be bothered”.

It is good if she could really detach and couldn’t be bothered. But the fact is that I knew it bothered her. She tried very hard to repress the sadness and grief and it gets pushed deeply into her core. The denial and suppression eventually result in a gradual but permanent memory loss.

At first, possible medical explanation

Actually my mom had a lot of health ailments prior to her developing Alzheimer’s. One of it was tonsil cancer where she underwent 36 doses of radiotherapy on her neck region. This was about 20 years ago where the radiotherapy treatment destroyed her salivary glands (no more saliva), a black patch on her neck and all the teeth falling off.

Two years ago when my mom had a fall and Xray results showed a blocked vessel on her neck region, the doctor prescribed a CT brain scan to check if the fall could have resulted in ruptured vessels to her brain. She was referred to a neurologist who after reviewing her scans and obtaining her history of radiotherapy, concluded that as the result of radiotherapy, the main vessel supplying blood and oxygen to her right brain was basically destroyed.

The good news, according to the neurologist was that her body compensated for the loss through developing new but smaller vessels. Well, one would have logically deduced that initially due to lack of supply of oxygen and nutrients to her brain, it may result in some of her brain cells dying and that could lead to Alzheimer.

Your loved one may have similar experience- such as injuries to the head (example being hit by football when playing the game), falls, stroke,  accident, whiplash, etc. What if there is none of these and they still went on to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s?

The subsequent case studies that I plan to write in future post- the persons involved did not had any head injury as far as I am aware of.

My mom’s difficult life

My mom is a truly wonderful woman, even with Alzheimer’s. But she had gone through a truly hard life. My mom was born around the time of the Japanese occupation of Malaya. As she was the 7th daughter of all daughters, her own mother sold her off for about 30 bucks when my mom was few months old.

She was sold to a unmarried lady who worked as a servant. Because an unmarried woman could not legally adopt my mom, she was legally adopted by the lady’s sister-in-law  who had a son. But the unmarried servant was my mom’s true mother but she was constantly away working as a stay in servant. The sis-in-law treated my mother badly, hardly gave her enough food but treated her own son like a king. My mom would be scrapping leftover overnight rice from the pot while this lady would buy pao, noodles or whatever dishes for her son. The woman was so nasty that when she saw my mom scrapping the hardened rice (you know, the layer that stick to a pot of rice cooked using firewood), she cooked less rice.

The sis-in-law had a very wicked nature….she always instigated to her son who had a very bad temper and he would end up hitting my mom. Sometimes when he had bad day at work he would also hit my mom.

My mom felt very unloved and unwanted as a child even before she knew she was adopted. She suppressed these emotions. One good thing her so called stepbrother did was he partially paid for her education.

She loved the unmarried servant lady who I referred to as my grandaunt dearly. However, my grandaunt was born in the late 19th century and hard a hard life as a servant coming from China so she was really lacking in the nurturing department because throughout her life she had to work just to survive. Even though there were never any physical display of affection or nice words, in fact they constantly quarreled as both are a little hot headed. There was a 50+ years gap between them so both looked at life very differently.

As a nurse under the Commonwealth system, my mom wanted to follow some of her friends to UK to work there. She was about to come back to relay the news to my grandaunt when her adopted brother (though the instigation of his mother), hit my grandaunt and they left the house on the eve of Chinese New Year (an important day for reunion in Chinese families) taking most of the house’s things. She let go of the dream and decided to stay back.

After a while they were back in talking terms but her adopted brother and his mother had always accused my mom of taking care of my grandaunt because she was after the old lady’s property. I knew that coming from her closest family hurt her deeply from the way she spoke about it.

When my mom was young, she had many suitors but she never considered marrying them because she did not want to abandon my grandaunt. Eventually she married my dad because my dad was the only person who was willing to move in to stay with my grandaunt. 40 over years ago in Asian society seldom any man would stay with the wife’s side.

Even though I loved my late dad, but to be honest, both my mom and dad were totally not compatible. They fought a lot until my dad decided to stone wall her (when she confronted him he just kept quiet and not say anything). Initially she was quite vocal, going back to her mother-in-law’s (my grandma) house to complain about my dad hoping to get some support.

My grandma already had a lot on her plate- she was still running a stall selling chili paste (hence she worked whole day at the stall and then come back and spend the whole day preparing the paste) and on top of that she had to look after some grandchildren. My grandma didn’t exactly had a good life either- she was also sold by her own mother to my grandfather’s family. When she was young she worked as a servant and later was made to marry my grandfather. My grandfather passed away when my dad was very young so my grandma had to come out to work to raise 10 kids. So you also could not expect my grandma to be top expert in the nurturing department. I understood my grandma but my mom didn’t.

My mom had to learn to fend for herself when young and had no one to share or speak about her fears, sadness or problems. No one taught her so she learned the best way to deal with any negative emotion… “just couldn’t be bothered“.

By nature, I had always been talkative so I was able to develop a rapport with my mom from young. Regardless of the time when I was a teenager dealing with teenage problems or as I got older with relationship problems, my mom would throw the ‘duck’s back’ way of dealing with the situation.

And for the life of me, I tried, I really tried but I just could not apply her advice. If I underwent a heartbreak, I would be sad and really grief…. each time for 2 or 3 years but after that, I would really get over it. I just could not deny or pretend that the sadness was not there. Because the more I suppress or deny it, the stronger the feelings got. So I learnt to talk to friends, become sad, then try to occupy myself and eventually let the feelings change.

A critical error in using denial to deal with sadness, rejection, guilt and other negative emotions

More than 10 years ago, I developed an interest to research on mind-body connection which I shared in this blog post written in 2007. At the same time, through my spiritual search, I met an excellent teacher who deeply inspired me even till this day.

However, my mom was critical of my teacher and was fully convinced that my teacher was out to get my money. I have been though some tough times with my teacher where it is proven that it was not true. No matter how I tried to reason and explain, my mom would not listen.

It then struck me that it is not only with my teacher, but the rigidly that she held on views and beliefs are causing her a lot of suffering.  It eventually struck me that my mom’s method in dealing with negative emotions is critically flawed. Not only she tried to shut herself but she forms incorrect opinions and refused to bulge in her beliefs.

I tried to make my mom understand and explain to her why some people had to do the things they did. It was not that they didn’t care or they rejected her. It was circumstantial and nothing to be taken personally. And that had we been in their shoes, we would have done exactly the same thing. But she refused to listen and she even accused me of trying to side with other people. All I wanted was to help mend her view and her disappointment in some key people in her life.

By nature my mom was and still is an extremely stubborn person. Once she put in a verdict, she seldom changed her views. But at times when she talks about it, I would be able to feel the underlying hurt which she would try to deny or forget about it. I knew she would not be open to therapy and to be honest…. I don’t think she would be receptive to any therapy because she was so convinced she was right.

Few years later, her chronic forgetfulness progressed to gradual symptoms of Alzheimer’s. As it is with Alzheimer’s- a person cannot remember the present but seemed to remember certain life events. Now, she can no longer prepare food or bathe herself. She forgets places and faces of many people, even of relatives and some of her close friends.

People with Alzheimer’s or dementia do not lose all function of their brains. They are quite sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers. If you are in a cheerful and caring mood with them, they would not be aggressive or angry. You have to genuine and don’t fake it because they could feel it. If they get upset, soothe them and assure them like you would with a child.

I am not perfect and I am also human. Sometimes being the primary caregiver takes its toll on me too. Initially I developed health ailments when I could not cope and was burnt out. But caring from my mom have been rewarding and it helps me to develop patience and compassion that no theory or experiences could.

My mom is a truly wonderful person. To the handful who cared for her, she treasured them dearly during those days. Even though she never had much money, she was an extremely gifted baker and cook who would make the delicious cakes, dishes, desserts and she would take to them when she visits them. She brought both my brother and me up well with the best she could give us.

It is unfair that to have gone through such a harsh life where the coping skills she had developed during childhood to shut off the hurt, pain and rejection actually harmed her relationships in her adult life. There are times when I think back, she felt so alone and helpless without anyone in the world but she toughen herself to continue on to raise us.

Ironically I sometimes find that Alzheimer’s was a merciful disease in the case of my mom. Her heart was getting weighed down a lot by years of accumulated sadness and grief. Two of her closest friends who are former nurses also agree because they knew her life story. Now her behavior is childlike and I learn to provide her with affection and feelings of security and non abandonment, something that she never had the chance to experience as a child.

In the next article, I would be writing about another 2 case studies and on early onset of Alzheimer’s in younger people.

Note: This post was originally published on 19 August 2019 in another of my blog.

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