How Emotions Linger After Memory Fails with Alzheimer's

Sunrise Senior Living  |  May 25, 2018

It’s an adage most of us have heard in one form or another: people might not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. This saying rings true for seniors living with dementia.

A 2014 study at the University of Iowa found that even when older adults with Alzheimer’s experience memory loss, their capacity to feel emotions of joy, grief, love, and more remains.

Studying How Alzheimer’s Impacts Emotions

Researchers examined how long emotions linger after memory fails when an older adult has Alzheimer’s. 

The University of Iowa study was a small one—just 34 older adults. Half of the participants had early Alzheimer’s disease, and the other half were considered to be cognitively and physically healthy. 

  • Researchers started by asking participants how they felt at that precise moment. Were they happy or sad? Once they assessed and documented each participant’s feelings, they moved on to the first part of the exercise. 
  • Participants were shown eight video scenes (from film and television) specifically designed to induce sadness. 
  • Five minutes after the sadness exercise was completed, they asked each participant what they remembered from the scenes and how they were feeling. 
  • These questions were repeated 15 minutes later and then again 30 minutes later. 
  • Then, participants were given a five-minute break.
  • When the study resumed, new video clips were shown. This set of videos was designed to induce happiness. 
  • Once the videos were done, researchers followed the same  method of questioning that they had for the sadness videos.
As time passed, participants couldn’t recall details from the videos. What stuck with them, however, was how they felt. 

This small study seems to indicate that emotions linger long after memory fails. When that emotion is sadness, its lasts even longer than feelings of happiness. 

This reinforces what experts have been saying for many years about how important environment is for people with Alzheimer’s. Fostering positive emotional experiences can help boost the spirit even after the memories of the experience fade.

Creating Positive Experiences for People With Alzheimer’s

What can you do to help a loved one with Alzheimer’s feel happier?

Alternative therapies might be key. Here are a few commonly used in memory care communities:

  • Pet therapy, such as interacting with a dog, cat, or small horse—or watching the birds—is uplifting.
  • Massage therapy, if the senior isn’t afraid of being touched, can have a healing effect and induce positive feelings.
  • Dance therapy with songs from the senior’s youth often evokes joy.
  • Music therapy and singalongs create happy feelings.
  • Art therapy and craft projects boost self-esteem and positive feelings.
  • Baking cookies and cakes that smell good has aromatherapy benefits that lift the spirit.
Do you think that these types of therapies may help a loved one in your life? See this list of resources from the Alzheimer’s Association for more information.

And, to learn more about navigating the journey with Alzheimer’s, we invite you to listen to Rita Altman, senior vice president of Memory Care & Program Services at Sunrise, in this episode of The Senior Caregiver podcast.

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