I have no idea of how many of you saw Tony Bennett’s last performance on CBS a couple of weeks ago but it was marvelous. He sang with Lady Gaga as well as by himself, including his signature “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” What is so amazing is that along with being 95, Tony Bennett suffers from dementia. Remember that dementia is a symptom, not a diagnosis, so it wasn’t made clear what type of dementia he was dealing with. Regardless, he never missed a beat.

What made this possible was the fact that Lady Gaga knew exactly how to deal with Tony and make him feel safe, even in front of thousands of people. He’d spent a lifetime performing on stage, so this was a perfectly normal situation for him to be in. It’s also important to remember that his long-term memory was also intact. His short-term memory, not so much.

I’ve often mentioned “The Alzheimer’s Project” series that you can view by going to ALZ.org or on YouTube. It was produced by HBO in cooperation with the Alzheimer’s Association and it should be a must-view for everyone. In one segment, they tell the story of Woody, who sang with an a cappella men’s group for years. Now in mid-stage Alzheimer’s, his short-term memory was non-existent. His wife and daughter pick him up in the dedicated community that he now lives in to take him to a concert being given by his former men’s singing group. I was shocked when the leader of the group invited Woody onto the stage to join them in a song. Initially, I thought how terrible this was going to be for his wife and daughter to see him struggle or even comprehend what was happening around him. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The moment they hit the “down beat” Woody started in. He was in perfect pitch, never forget a word, his timing was perfect and so was his harmony. Sadly, the one thing that Woody has in common with Tony Bennett, besides a great set of “pipes,” is that less than five minutes after their performance, they had no idea they had done it.

Someone once said our memories are stored like packing things in an 18-wheeler. Our older memories that go back to maybe age 4 or 5 are packed in first, followed by our teen years, then our memories of our 20s, 30s, 40s and so on. Eventually, the trailer is full and there’s no more room for any more. Another example I’ve used is my “velcro theory.” You’ve answered the same question for your loved one five times in the last 10 minutes. If you imagine that your answer is attached to a piece of velcro, because of the disease, when it gets in their brain, there is nothing for it to stick to.

There are three different types of long-term memory:

Semantic: Memories that can be explained and declared.

Episodic: Memories of specific events and being able to share details of that event, like a wedding and who the guests were.

Procedural: These memories deal with simply knowing how to do something, including all the steps necessary to complete the task (like singing).

Dementia is the most common cause for long-term memory loss, but it is by no means the only cause. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, traumatic brain injury and of course aging can also be culprits. As dementia is a progressive disease, you’ll be dealing with the loss of short-term memory first, and as the disease advances, their ability to remember words and understand them erodes. The folks at verywellheath.com said it best: “Even if they can’t remember your visit, the feeling that your visit creates lasts long after the memory fades.

Questions? Email me at repe@careforcaregivers.org,

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