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Lonna Whiting, Published February 09 2014

Whiting: Human interaction best medicine for brain failure

At age 61, my mom has started taking Aricept, one of the dementia medications aimed to slow the progression of brain failure that most doctors admit don’t really work.

In truth, the prescription has done nothing other than add to a mountain of medical bills we cannot pay because she doesn’t qualify for health insurance.

Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health recently announced an unconventional collaboration between government entities and various pharmaceutical giants to speed up research-to-market drugs that actually work to slow or stop the progression of dementias (and other equally life-destroying diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis).

The Washington Post recently reported: “The initiative – called the Accelerating Medicines Partnership, or AMP – takes a more comprehensive approach, bringing scientists from industry and government together to look at the universe of possibilities and prioritize the most promising targets for treatments.”

This team-oriented approach to drug discovery saves time and money in the long run, but sadly any breakthroughs will come too late to help my mom and the millions of others already succumbing to brain failure.

Right now, the only “medicine” that really works is love and attention from family, friends and strangers, especially on the “tough days.”

Just the other night I received a call from my mother’s favorite resident assistant. She had made a harmless comment after dinner that upset my mother so deeply that she wept for hours.

“I’ll be right over,” I responded.

I found her sitting in her room alone, crying because she didn’t understand how to use the television remote. Crying because her favorite “helper” didn’t like her anymore. Crying because she was lonely. I gave her a hug, pulled out some photos from my childhood, and soon the tears dried.

She’s my mom, and I love her more than myself sometimes, but I feel I would have done the same for anyone else experiencing that kind of agitation and sadness.

In fact, I have, and I am a better person for it.

One 80-something resident approaching the end stages of the disease never remembers who I am even though I visit most days of the week. Regardless, we engage in conversation as much as she is able.

During a recent late-evening visit, I reached to her for a hug. At first she loosely hung to me, quite unsure of what she should do next. But within a few seconds, she embraced me with the strength of a much younger woman. She held on tight. She didn’t let go. It was likely the first hug she’d had in a very long time.

These moments of human connection can’t be manufactured, bottled and marketed by pharmaceutical companies. They are deeply personal interactions that transcend the awkward and sometimes uncomfortable barriers between us.

Recognizing, comforting and spending time with our elders and ailing loved ones isn’t as “fun” as cuddling and playing with babies and kids. I understand it’s not on most people’s calendars to snuggle under a blanket with a friend’s demented grandparent while watching Lawrence Welk.

But if you haven’t spent time around people with memory loss, you’ll never know what a soul-strengthening gift it is to comfort someone who is confused about who they are, what this strange world means, and where they exist in time.

In truth, I’m sometimes glad my mother has brain failure. It’s taught me that for every one hug I can offer her – or an old woman I barely know – there are millions of others out there whose entire outlook can change with a simple stroke of the hand, a pat on the cheek, or a warm embrace.

Just like the Accelerating Medicines Partnership, which takes a team approach to drug discovery to end these unimaginably tragic brain diseases, our community needs to take a team approach in caring for our elders.

The last thing any of us would ever want is to spend our final years not knowing, understanding or remembering that we are not alone in our journeys.

In order to do that, we must not forget the forgetting.

Lonna Whiting is a copywriter at Flint Group in Fargo. Her mother was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at age 61 and currently resides in a memory care facility in Moorhead, Minn. Whiting can be reached at lonnawhiting@gmail.com.