I recently posted on FB about reliving past trauma during dementia. There was a considerable response from people with dementia explaining personal experiences and caregivers, both family and facility personal, relating stories of how the person with dementia relived episodes of trauma from their past or was stuck repeating one.
Reliving isn’t remembering. While they are in the middle of the experience it is real to them and just as frightening as when it originally happened. It’s more like a psychotic break or what schizophrenics experience.
Those who worked in eldercare facilities shared how sad it was not knowing what the person was going through or how to help them. Occasionally a family member could explain the traumatic event and care could be modified. A war veteran curled up in a ball, screaming, “The bombs, the bombs” and another person wrote how a woman wouldn’t eat and consistently walk away from the dining area because she was seated next to an elderly man with a mustache. Her grandfather molested her when she was a child. Family members told me how their loved one’s traumas resurfaced and how they felt sad, unable to help them.
But understanding the nature of resurfaced trauma and how it can be healing is important.
Most people have unresolved issues; many traumatic. We unconsciously create reruns in our lives until we can resolve our issues. The abused child marries abusive men or past abandonment creates a lifetime of loss. If there was an angry parent the person finds themselves in conflictive situations throughout their lives. It’s not about the actual situation, it’s about the lingering emotions caused by the trauma that needs to be worked out. It’s about finding a release for the fear, mistrust, anger, panic, anxiety, or hopelessness. So, we recreate scenarios in our lives that give us opportunities to work them out.
That abused child marries an abuser but gets out of the marriage, the abandoned orphan creates a large family or someone who lost a loved one volunteers for Hospice.
As dementia progresses the person’s unresolved past issues build up pressure that can’t be released by creating an experience in their present lives. This pressure then gets acted out as difficult behavior, delusions, or a reliving of the experience.
What I am getting at is this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the episodes are handled properly by those caring for them, they can help move them through it. The built-up emotions of the trapped traumatic issues are slowly chipped away. Think of it like a steam valve releasing pressure. Those caring for them must remain compassionate and adjust their care to alleviate their distress when possible. Don’t fall into sadness or grief over this or that emotion will fuel what they are already dealing with. Stay calm, soothe them if possible, conscious of their pain but not stepping into it. Be their safe ground to land when the episode has passed.