Those suffering with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia sometimes experience a mysterious moment of lucidity.
Posted in , Mar 24, 2020
Donna Teti sat next to her mother, Jean, at a wedding reception table. A stream of guests filed past, greeting them—the mother and grandmother of the bride.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Smythe!” they said to Jean.
“Thank you, honey,” she would say with a smile.
It was how Jean greeted each guest as they came by—not using anyone’s names unless Donna told her who they were. Donna’s mother didn’t remember them. She didn’t know why she was here. She barely knew who Donna was.
Jean had dementia. Over the past three years, her condition had deteriorated. Jean had always dreamed of her granddaughter Lauren’s wedding day. But at this point, Jean didn’t recognize Lauren anymore.
As the reception went on, Jean sat quietly, smiling but not joining in the merriment. Then Lauren was ready to make her entrance, and the DJ announced her as the bride. Donna glanced at her mom. Jean was crying! “Mom, are you okay?” Donna asked, thinking Jean was in pain.
“I never thought I’d live to see Lauren’s wedding day,” Jean said. Donna was stunned. Her mom actually knew where she was! “Her clarity was amazing,” Donna says. Jean even joined the family later on the dance floor. Though Jean’s awareness didn’t last, Donna never forgot that moment of lucidity.
“It was exactly what I needed,” Donna says. “I wanted to share this with her, and I got that. I felt as if I had my mom back.”
The phenomenon Donna witnessed is mysterious but not unheard of. Family members and caregivers of those with dementia occasionally report similar instances. Somehow, the person suddenly “wakes up.” They energetically speak with their loved ones, remember who the people are around them and bring up memories long believed to have been lost. This remarkable event is referred to by scholars and medical professionals as paradoxical lucidity—moments of clarity that defy logic.
There isn’t yet a medical explanation for how people with dementia suddenly regain their memories or personality for a short time, sometimes right before death (known as terminal lucidity). Alexander Batthyany, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Vienna, who has been conducting a study on the phenomenon since 2013, has been unable to pinpoint what exactly causes these lucid moments. “The fact that people who were thought to be ‘gone’ make such a sudden [if temporary] return is currently a mystery,” he says.
It’s a subject that scientists, doctors and caregivers have long pondered. Accounts of inexplicable moments of lucidity are found as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., in the writings of Hippocrates.
In his seven years of research, Professor Batthyany has already encountered 200 cases and believes it points to a higher trend. In an interview with HuffPost, he described the occurrences as “close to a miracle, given what we know about brain function and cognition.”
Take, for example, the case of 93-year-old Mary Dunn. Mary was one of the more difficult residents at Cornwall Park Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. Kate Burnett, one of the staff there, said Mary was often irritable, shouting and cursing at hospital employees. Then, one morning, Kate arrived to find that Mary was asking for her. Immediately, she could tell something had changed. “In fact, [Mary’s] features were very different—soft and loving,” Kate told the Daily Mirror. “Her usual colorful language was replaced with words of kindness and joy.”
Mary also had her memories back. She told Kate about her life, and Kate got to ask Mary about all the things she’d wanted to know. Mary even had a message for her. “She apologized for the way she spoke to the carers and to me,” Kate says. She went on to thank Kate and the care team for their kindness despite her cruel words.
Later that day, Mary’s lucidity ended and her aggression returned. But the experience changed Kate’s perspective. “I know that deep down in that dementia patient is a vibrant, intelligent and loving woman…” she says. “It was such a gift…really a miracle.”
Could it be that these unexplainable moments of lucidity truly are miraculous? Marilyn Mendoza, a psychologist and a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Tulane University Medical Center, says, “There’s no scientific reason for these moments of lucidity at present, and I think a part of that is because it’s more of a spiritual experience. For family members, these moments can have more immediate effect on a spiritual level.”
Such was the case for Guideposts book editor Janet Talbert, whose grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. Her grandmother no longer recognized or reacted to visitors and had recently stopped speaking altogether. Janet felt as if the person she loved was unreachable. “My grandmother was always talkative. A big storyteller,” she says. “And her voice always had a happy lilt to it.”
Over the course of a two-day visit, Janet observed her grandmother’s silent state. “It was hard,” Janet says. “I was hoping for some kind of exchange. Some acknowledgement.” But none came.
Janet was disappointed but knew she had to accept things as they were. When the time came for her to fly back home, Janet told her grandmother that she loved her and turned to go.
“I love you too!” her grandmother said in her familiar singsong voice.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Janet says of the experience. “I got a chill all over my body. A happy chill.”
Immediately afterward, Janet’s grandmother returned to silence. She would die a month later. Those four words were the last ones Janet would hear from her grandmother—a comforting final moment of love and connection.
For those close to people with dementia, these instances sometimes help them with their grief after their loved one dies. “It helps family members have a sense of closure,” Dr. Mendoza says. “To know that they’ll be okay.” When someone with dementia becomes temporarily lucid, they appear restored to their former selves. This can be a comforting experience for their family, who might feel as if they’ve lost touch with the person they love.
Professor Batthyany recalls a specific story he heard during his study. A woman with dementia who became momentarily lucid told her husband that he should take up gardening again. He’d stopped because he was so focused on caring for her. But it was the message he needed to hear. “The husband told me that this was a ‘great last gift’ from his wife,” Professor Batthyany says. The gift of showing the man how to go on after she was gone.
These moments can also act as a sign of divine support for those watching a loved one’s decline. They serve as a beatific hand, reaching out toward family members and caregivers and showing them they are not alone. “There’s something out there that’s trying to help us,” Dr. Mendoza says. “There’s more to life than what we see and what we know.”
Still, the majority of dementia patients don’t experience paradoxical lucidity. Why do some people with dementia regain momentary lucidity while so many others do not? “We don’t know why it happens this way,” Dr. Mendoza says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t find some comfort in just knowing that it happens.”
Whether we witness these lucid moments or not, their very existence can be seen as a blessing. A reminder that there is a part of everyone untouched by illness or disease. A glimpse of the wholeness that awaits beyond this life.
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