A daughter’s determination
No one close to me has suffered (yet) from dementia. Both my parents, although ailing physically, are still as sharp as a tack. And my octogenarian grandparents, even at the end of their lives, never lost their mental acuity.
But plenty of folk aren’t so lucky, and have to endure the gradual ebbing away of a mother, father, husband or wife. Some feel helpless and horrified in the face of the disease; others choose to defy their loved one’s prognosis.
When her own father was diagnosed with dementia soon after her mother’s death, Dr Helena Popovic became his primary carer, resolving to halt his decline. Recently she wrote a book about the experience, In Search of My Father: Dementia is no match for a daughter’s determination. Here she shares some of that story. You can also hear Popovic at the upcoming Mind & Its Potential conference.
Being a trained doctor, Popovic is well versed in the science of neuroplasticity. “We know that the brain can change itself. The research has shown we’re not destined for irrevocable cognitive decline. We also know that dementia is as much a life style-based disease as is heart disease and diabetes.”
Still, Popovic had her work cut out for her. Her dad didn’t just exhibit the symptoms of dementia; he was grief stricken about the loss of her mum, his wife. “Our conversation every morning for the first month was, ‘you’re a doctor, give me Valium so I never wake up again.’”
Halting the slide
Nevertheless, Popovic eventually managed to re-ignite the life force in her father, concentrating on “maintaining physical activity, social activity, mental stimulation and lifeline learning”, all to powerful effect.
Some of Popovic’s funniest anecdotes concern her efforts in this regard, like when she gave her dad a pedometer. At first, he was resistant. Later on, “he would try and find subversive ways of getting his 10,000 steps in … he’d run up and down the hallway, or sit in a chair and move his legs.” She didn’t mind. “The fact he was trying to outwit me was positive.”
But it was on a trip to Serbia, her father’s birthplace, that the change in her dad was most remarkable. “He was engaged, chatty, alive.”
Popovich attributes this to the much stronger sense of community (“the house never had less than five people in it”); also that her dad and his relatives talked a lot about the past. “His long-term memory is great. Suddenly he felt confident because he was talking about things he [knew] about. He wasn’t embarrassed about having forgotten what he did yesterday.”
Back in Australia, Popovic concedes she can’t know what impact her father’s daily activity-filled regime has had on the progression of his disease. But it doesn’t matter, she says. The main thing is, he’s “having more fun.”