Although Valentine’s Day is usually associated with romantic love, it also provides a reminder for us of the importance of sharing this emotion with all individuals who are close to our hearts.  In one of A.A. Milnes’ Winnie the Pooh stories, Piglet asks Pooh, “How do you spell ‘love’?”  Pooh’s response was, “You don’t spell it . . . you feel it.”  In order for someone to feel loved, another must share himself or herself with the individual.  When Alzheimer’s disease is present, sharing love can become more difficult both for the healthy and affected individuals.  As memory fades and affected individuals become less able to recognize family members and friends, recall life experiences, and verbally express themselves; it can be easy for the demands of physical care to overshadow the demonstration of love.  In addition, family members and friends may wonder what impact their sharing of love will have on the affected individual, since the individual is unlikely to remember the event as soon as it has ended, or even fully understand what is happening minute to minute during the interaction.

Researchers are beginning to explore the relationship between emotions and memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease.  Dr. Steven Sabat, a member of Georgetown University’s Psychology Department, has found that after a specific experience, people with Alzheimer’s disease will demonstrate emotions which are associated with that experience, even though they cannot verbalize a memory of the experience itself (Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s blog, 9/4/13).   Researchers at the University of Iowa conducted a study in which individuals with Alzheimer’s disease watched film clips about happy and sad events.  The participants were rated according to observations of their emotions at baseline and at three points in time after viewing the film clips.  Their recall of the content of the film clips was also recorded. The study concluded that the subjects’ feelings of sadness and happiness lasted “well beyond” their memories of even having viewed film clips (Abstract, The Journal of the Society for Behavioral & Cognitive Neurology, 09/2014).

The implications of these studies are clear.  The emotional memories of recent events in the lives of individuals with Alzheimer’s outlast the memories of the occurrence or details of these events.  Thus, by sharing demonstrations of love with these individuals, we are contributing to a positive emotional state and improved quality of life. Although emotional memory appears to remain intact longer than declarative memory, such as recall of events or people, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease experience a decreased ability to regulate their emotions due to changes in particular areas of the brain.  They also become more dependent on communicating through emotion when language and reasoning skills are lost to the disease, and they become more emotionally sensitive to the moods of people around them.  Emotional state, whether their own or that of someone nearby, will impact behavior.  When positive emotions of love and happiness are associated not only with special events, but also with the tasks of daily living, then cooperation and participation in these activities will improve, thus creating a win-win situation for both the caregiver and the care recipient.

Do you know anyone with Alzheimer’s disease with whom you can share some time, attention, and a little love this Valentine’s Day?  A little love may go a lot farther than you would expect, and isn’t the experience of happy feelings more important than remembering the reason for those feelings?

Karen Kaslow, RN

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