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The remains from a shipwreck: emotional memory and Alzheimer’s

emotional memory and alzheimers disease

The remains from a shipwreck. That’s what I like to call what Alzheimer´s doesn’t take away. And that is, in a way, the representation of what outlasts the disease after such a tremendous tsunami of destruction. After the loss of memories, identity and—why not say it—the very essence of the person,in a person with Alzheimer’s there is still room for emotional memory. We hear so much about emotional memory, which can be summarized in one word: LOVE. It is true that this disease erases memories as well as lives, but it does not erase emotions.

Family members of Alzheimer’s patients, after their diagnosis and initial grief, are often afraid of not knowing how to behave or emotionally connect with them. Behind the façade that is deteriorating daily, there is a person with the same emotions as before, though these emotions are also accompanied by symptoms that are now generally known.

Emotional memory in psychology

In psychology, emotional memory is understood as “the emotionally charged feeling that returns every time a significant previous experience is recalled.” In this context, we could also add “every time the patient sees a loved one, or every time someone gives the patient a hug“.

Let me say that I am not aware of any case of Alzheimer’s disease in which emotional memory is not present in one way or another. All patients, regardless of the stage of their disease and itsprogression, respond positively to emotional stimuli. This, for the caregiver, provides a source of assurance and attachment to the present, because not all is lost if a hug can still bring a smile to the patient’s face or provide a moment of calm and reassurance between episodes of agitation, delusions or hallucinations.

Alzheimer’s patients can still feel emotions

Those reading this may wonder how it is possible for people who cannot remember who they are, to know the meaning of a kiss, hug or caress. The explanation is very simple: patients with Alzheimer’s can feel emotions even if they forget—as a result of the disease—the reason behind these emotions; emotions, even when fleeting, exist, and that is the essence of affection.

A person with Alzheimer’s cannot remember that it is his son whom he sees every day, who takes care of him, but the simple presence of his son can still instill calm since, amidst his mental confusion, his son’s face is a “friendly” face, a source of caresses and perhaps also of kisses and hugs, a plank to hold onto during a shipwreck.

It is positive for the patients to experience love, security and tranquility thanks to emotional memory, but it is also positive for the caregivers. Therefore, it is considered essential that the family members of Alzheimer’s patients and their main caregivers learn to say with gestures what in the past they conveyed with words, in order to exchange (and not only give) positive emotions with the patients.

This exchange of positive emotions is maintained until the end because, even when the patients have long ago takena path of no return, a path in which their memories andtheir vital experiences will be left behind, we must understand that only the love we feel for them will make them remain connected to us and to the personthey once were.

“There is no such thing as forgetting: you keep the emotions, I keep the memories.”


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