Sometimes the person with dementia relives a traumatic experience from the past as though it were happening in real-time. That experience might have been buried under a lifetime of an inability to face it. Unfortunately, the damage to the brain caused by dementia can sometimes bring these unresolved issues to the surface and bleed into the present.
During one of my picture communication sessions in a nursing home, I was helping a 90-year-old woman with late dementia. She hadn’t spoken in years and spent most days sitting in a reclining chair sleeping. But during the activity she stayed interested in the pictures I was pointing out in the magazine. When she seemed attracted to one of the images I’d ask if she liked it and if she continued interested, I’d cut it out and paste it into a collage. Normally she never noticed words.
That particular day she couldn’t take her eyes off a word phrase at the top of the page; “Children’s Corner.”
She continued to stare at the phrase so I assumed she liked it, and cut it out. But when I placed it in her hand, she dropped it like it burned her and began to sob. Then pleading in the terrified voice of a small child said, “Please don’t, Mommy! Don’t put me in there! Please don’t…noooo!”
She was reliving some terrible event those words had activated and I doubted it was about a corner. That phrase triggered her ability to speak; although, her voice was not that of a ninety-year-old woman.
I reassured her saying: “We don’t let Mommies or anyone put children in those places. You are safe with us. We’re here to protect you.” She slowly raised her eyes to mine with an expression of coherent gratefulness, which gradually faded to the blank stare of dementia once again. That old woman’s terrified child’s voice haunts me to this day.
If your loved one was a battered wife, abused as a child, or lived through some traumatic experience like a war, they most likely didn’t speak about it. My parents abided by, “What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.” Unfortunately, dementia progression might open those doors allowing their hidden monsters to escape from the dark and invade the present.