About two years ago, my grandfather made a heartbreaking confession.

“I can’t seem to remember things anymore,” he said.

It was the most vulnerable I have ever seen him. He began forgetting what day it was. He forgot names. And his memory continued to fade. Today, all he remembers about his marriage is saying “I do.” His dementia erases his memories, stealing bits of who he is. Though my grandfather may feel alone, he isn’t.

Brittany thinks she was in high school when her grandfather started experiencing dementia, but after his wife died, his dementia flared. Brittany’s mother was his primary caregiver, but he still lived alone — just around the corner from the family home. Feeling a sense of familiarity slowed his decline, allowing Brittany to visit often.

“It made it easier to recognize the brilliant man he was,” she says.

Unconditional love and commitment build the bond between grandparent and grandchild. Memories of trips to the park and deep, warm hugs colour that special union. And it is special; it’s evolutionary. It guards the former generation’s genes and promotes the grandchild’s survival and the survival of their family tree. Though, mental illness can disrupt this process — and the way future demographics look, it may be a dire dilemma.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports by 2020, there will be more 60-year-olds than children and by 2050, there will be two billion 60-year-olds. With this, the prevalence of dementia may triple in the next 30 years. But dementia isn’t the same for everyone.

Brittany’s grandfather can still remember his family members, but can’t spend time with them like he used to.

“My grandfather was devastated that he could no longer drive. He used to take us on many adventures, including regular ice cream trips,” she said.

Witnessing her grandfather lose his ability to discuss the latest National Geographic article or forget words mid-sentence broke her. Watching her mother endure the stress of elder care made it worse.

“On one or two occasions, he had wandered away from home,” Brittany said. “Fortunately, we lived so close to him. But even so, my mother’s stress of knowing he may be in danger was felt in our family.”

Coping with the stress of caregiving is an important and overlooked element to dementia. Research shows supporting grandparents with dementia, especially with two-way face-to-face interactions is effective. Avoiding the problem is easy, but daily interaction and an enthusiasm to learn can help those with dementia and their caregivers.

“Try to see your grandparents as much as possible. It was easier to see my grandfather as the same person when I saw him so regularly,” Brittany says. “It was still incredibly sad and different, but he remembered me and we continued to make memories.”

When caring for someone with cognitive decline, remember…

  1.     Symptoms don’t always predict mental illness or diagnosis
  2.     Everyone’s experience with dementia is unique
  3.     A diagnosis does not mean you can’t do what you used to
  4.     Spend time with your family and express your love for them
  5.     A diagnosis can strengthen your relationship

By Maiesha Rahman

Image by Phoebe Maharaj