Why dementia is not a time machine

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Please note: this is different from what I say when I talk about Timeline Confusion(TM) in dementia.

Oh, the things I hear people say about dementia.

“She’s reverting back to how she was when she was a child,” you’ll hear people say.

Nobody with dementia is going back in time. No one is “reverting” to childhood. Dementia is not a time machine.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people make a connection between child-like behavior and the behavior of older adults with dementia.

Yes, people with dementia do seem to gain some childish behaviors as their disease progresses. This isn’t because they are “reverting” back to being children, however: it’s because they are losing things that they’ve learned as adults.

When you’re a child (and especially when you’re a teenager) you often find yourself reacting poorly to various situations: you argue, you accuse, you get yourself into trouble.

As you age, however, you learn (hopefully) how to do things differently. Your brain finally finishes forming by the time that you’re done with your mid twenties, and you make better decisions. Instead of blurting something out, you hold it in. You’ve learned to hold back, and your fully-formed brain helps you manage your speech and your behavior.

People living with dementia don’t have the same ability to control their reactions, their speech, their memory, or, eventually, even their ability to walk. The brain of someone with dementia is, quite literally, degrading slowly over time. 

But, she still isn’t “turning back into a child.” Her brain has just lost the momentous gains it made throughout her life.

I hate to compare the destruction that dementia causes in the brain to the innocence of childhood. It feels almost, to me, that we’re making dementia seem…simple. It’s as though we’re suggesting that the people who have dementia are silly and cute in the way that children are. 

When a child stumbles, he or she will probably bounce back up. When an 80-year-old man with dementia falls, the injuries he sustains could end his life.

When children make a mess feeding themselves, everyone congratulates them for trying. “Isn’t she so cute?” they’ll ask. When a woman with dementia makes a mess while eating, people shake their heads. “What a sad disease,” they’ll say.

We can’t make a simple comparison between dementia and child-like behavior. A child is a person who has not yet grown up. A person with dementia is an adult who is struggling to regain their place in the world. 

Dementia is not a time machine.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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