Family caregivers of those with dementia commonly say, “Mom has changed, I don’t recognize her anymore, this isn’t the man I married or Dad was such a quiet, sweet person, and now he’s angry all the time.”
“I feel like I’m living with a stranger.”
Personality changes are one of the most common dementia symptoms and usually the most significant cause of families emotionally distancing themselves from the person. But not many people understand why this happens. If they did, they would not feel they have lost their loved ones.
Our personalities are a composition of our past experiences. Even in the womb, we had experiences affected by our mother’s; what she ate, her emotional state, and what we heard. Hearing is the sense first developed in vitro.
We learned about our environment and how to interact with it throughout our lives because of what we experienced. Our sets of circumstances shaped our world, and no two people have lived in the same way. We are all very unique.
Each person’s personality is shaped by parents, religion, education, trauma, joy, emotions, and beliefs. Aging changes our characters. We are not the same person at 60 as we were at 20. With every new experience, we add another dimension to who we are in the present.
However, this depends on memory. Not necessarily what we consciously remember, which is a minimal part of brain function, but more of what our subconscious has put into our inner programming; even our cells have a memory of which we aren’t aware of consciously.
With dementia, it is not only conscious memory that’s lost; automatic memory too. Taking a shower, preparing food, walking, and swallowing are also affected. The connections to the material from our past experiences that compose who we are today are lost. Whatever is left is what is forming the personality of the person with dementia. And this continues to change throughout progression.
Emotional impulse control dissolves, and feelings buried in the subconscious comes to light with dementia. That gentle, kind father might have suppressed his real feelings so long even he never recognized his subconscious frustration or anger. That angry stranger in your father’s skin is still John, the man. He may no longer be your father because that was a role that dropped away with his condition’s progression.
Mother, father, son, wife, or husband are just roles we play in life. We also played the wonder-filled child, rebellious teen, or company executive. These experiences don’t define us; they are pieces of the puzzle that became us. During dementia, roles and memory vanish, and a rearranging of the personality takes place. This rearranging is not creating a stranger, and the result is still Joan, John, or Stephanie. But they are no longer mom, dad, or sister. Now the remaining pieces of their experiences are creating new aspects of who that person is today.
Even with dementia, they are still here, just a rearranged version of themselves.