A few months ago, I received a call that changed my life forever. My mom called me from Mexico and she was mortified. She was confused and her words made no sense. I traveled to see her and take her to the doctor to do a full check up. After an MRI, cognitive and neuropsychological tests, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. I was upset, angry, sad, outraged, and devastated – as you can imagine. There is no cure, there is nothing I can do to stop or reverse the disease. There are medications that may help lessen the symptoms for a period of time, but in the end I feel I am losing her like water between my hands. After many, many, many tears I have made peace with my mom’s diagnosis. I am taking care of her, and to be honest, some days are better than others.
She is in an early stage, she still remembers a lot of things (except where her purse is); she still feels she is independent (with a little help from us behind the scenes); she cooks (sometimes weird dishes); she cleans (often I clean after); she can make phone calls; she even uses Spotify on her iPad to listen to her favorite music, and sometimes with a lot of luck, she can find old movies on YouTube. She has no filters when she gives her opinion and it can go from very funny to mortifying.
I have read all I could get my hands on about dementia and have often fallen asleep reading with my computer on my belly many nights, trying to understand why, who, how, when… but the bottom line is that there is no known cure for dementia yet. So now my main focus is to prepare for the day to day challenges and also for what is to come and help keep her as functional as possible.
I found that common symptoms in mid and later stages of dementia are depression, restlessness, decrease in physical functioning, among others. I have also found that exercise training increases fitness, physical function, cognitive function, and positive behavior in people with dementia and related cognitive impairments.
Here is how exercise can help fight the symptoms of dementia:
Depression can increase memory impairment, many studies show that people who exercise regularly benefit with a positive boost in mood and lower rates of depression. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain and can also elevate the mood.
After physical activity, our bodies are more prone to feeling rested and relaxed, which is beneficial for all of us. Also physical activity can be helpful in maintaining a good sleep-wake cycle and in facilitating sound sleep at night.
As dementia progresses, the physical ability to walk and carry out activities of daily living such as getting dressed, take a shower and get ready for the day decline. Physical activity may help maintain a higher level of functioning for a longer time.
Improve Mental Alertness and Cognitive Functioning
Research has shown that physical exercise has actually improved cognition in those with mild cognitive impairment. While it hasn’t been shown to restore memory completely, it has improved overall thought processes and cognitive functioning.
Mom’s strengthening program:
My mom always had been very active, she used to walk a lot every day. Now at 86, she has some aches and pains that make her less active. I take her for 30 minute walks at least 3 times a week; she enjoys seeing other people in the park and loves to see the ocean and the boats by the marina.
For strength training I have elected a Pilates based program. I use resistance bands and a magic circle to work arms, legs and rotation. She dislikes abdominal work and refuses to work on thoracic extension. It is still a work in progress. She does not tolerate work more than a few minutes a day, but hopefully little by little I will add more time and she will be able to enjoy the benefits of physical exercise.
I know that in addition to her medication, physical activity will help her to maintain a healthy heart, strong muscles, mobile joints and also improve her balance reducing the risk of falls. These activities are not only good for her, they are good for me, they give me hope that her quality of life will be the best possible even when her mind is gone. Working with her gives me an opportunity to take care of her in the same way she did care for me when I was growing up.
Dementia is not an easy thing to accept or cope with. I struggle everyday and know that she does too. I am just happy to have Pilates to provide me and my mom a daily boost of endorphins.