Personality and dementia
Type of Spiritual Experience
I was interested in seeing if it was possible to find a way of determining whether a ‘core’ personality actually existed. Whether it was possible to find people where the core personality was evident unsullied by learnt function.
After some deliberation of the various types of observer it occurred to me that the prime candidates for such a study are the old and especially those with dementia, as those people lose many of their acquired learnt function and revert back to what might be termed ‘core personality’. But who should I study? Clearly it had to be someone I could study at close hand and then it occurred to me - who better to study than someone really close to me – my Mum.
A description of the experience
My mother died in 2001 aged 82, 11 months after my father. My mother had dementia. Dementia (from Latin de- "apart, away" + mens (mentis) "mind") is the progressive decline in cognitive function due to damage or disease in the brain. In my Mum’s case it was a result of ageing but exacerbated by the fact that unbeknownst to me [because we lived some distance from them and I saw them only for occasional weekends] she was not eating properly.
When she came to see us she ate well, but at home, she was eating practically nothing. In effect my mother was starving herself and it was only when she became so weak from not eating and her mental faculties were failing that we realised what had been happening . My father appeared not to notice.
My mother’s dementia never became severe. Her short term memory was about 5 to 10 minutes which meant she was unable to read, watch TV or do any ordinary jobs about the house simply because she was unable to maintain the attention span needed to complete the task. But her language skills, and her long term memory [perceptions in reality] - particularly of the distant past were good. She tried to be ‘normal’ and was extremely convincing - able to maintain pleasant conversations. It was only when you were with her some time, you realised she had no recollection of what she had said and done.
After my father died I found a home where she could be cared for and although well looked after, her condition deteriorated. She was frequently disoriented in time (not knowing what day of the week, day of the month, month, or even what year it was) and in place (not knowing where she was). She hallucinated quite regularly seeing places she loved superimposed over actual views from the windows of the home.
She was on no medication. She would have refused to take it even if they'd given it to her.
She did not lose her ability to recognise me, my husband or know who she was however, her sense of person remained strong.
What became more and more marked as time passed was the sense that what we saw of my Mum was the essence of her. As her Memory failed it was as if all the baggage of life that had given her new character traits [and caused her to starve herself] was stripped away and what was left was ‘core Personality’ - who she really was.
Initially she became the mother I had known as a teenager – but after some time she became almost as she must have been when she was a child herself – fun loving, mischievous, gentle, totally non confrontational, lovable and very loving. These traits incidentally I also remember well from my early childhood. She showed enormous affection for both my husband David and I as well as the staff who looked after her and her ‘best friend’ another lady called Annie.
Lots of traits remained – she was very dignified and liked to look neat and tidy, she was independent and ‘strong’ however weak in body. She could be extremely strong willed and ‘stubborn’. Even without hearing her voice or seeing her, I would have known her instantly.
The only time she was unhappy was when she was confused and frustrated by her inability to remember. On the whole she was placid and calm and laughed a lot. At peace.
During her life, her experiences [the war, difficulties making ends meet, lack of real hobbies and interests] had contrived to ensure the essence of who she was was obscured or distorted. As more and more of the experiences that had made a life were taken away from her, more and more of who she really was surfaced. As the unhappinesss was erased from her Memory, the core personality was revealed – a personality incidentally I instantly recognised because it was quite definitely essence of Mum.
She was nice, my Mum.