The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Making Conscious Choices

We’ve been teaching about dementia for many years. Over time, I’ve come to notice that “normal” people find it almost as difficult to change their minds as does a person with dementia. The difference, of course, is that we have a choice and those with dementia don’t. But how often do we exercise that choice.

For example, we talk a lot about how a person with dementia CAN’T change their mind, once it’s made up because their ability to think abstractly is limited. We can, but how often do we make that effort? Think about the last time you disagreed with someone. Did you consciously use your abstract thinking ability to evaluate their view and consider how it might be right, or even partly right? Or did you respond almost automatically, with your own pre-determined view? If you chose the latter, you aren’t alone. Most people do. They make a decision and stick with it even when new information makes it less accurate. Humans tend to do things the easiest way. Conscious thinking takes effort and the willingness to accept that we might be wrong. The stronger our beliefs, the harder it is to change them.

I often think of a “fact” I learned in college in Alaska. In my Alaskan history class, I learned how people emigrated from Asia to Alaska over the Bering Sea land bridge during the ice age, and then filtered south. Recent discoveries have made that theory very questionable. Even so, it is still the theory that most resonates with me. Now this doesn’t affect my life. However, it does make me think about other beliefs I might have that are more personal. What about the religious and political beliefs that I have developed over time? How often do I question them to see if they are still relevant? How often do you?

Care partners of people living with dementia are challenged to make these determinations all the time. You learn to put aside your own beliefs about what is true and what isn’t and go with your loved one’s views at least enough to let them feel heard and affirmed. But how often do you do this with others?

This time I think of a cousin that I grew up with. We have very different religious beliefs but we can still talk about them. Neither expects the other to “convert” but we are able to consciously use our abstract thinking ability to share and look for value in each other’s ideas. This isn't something we do casually. It takes time, patience, empathy and acceptance as well as a healthy curiosity but the result is a special closeness that we otherwise wouldn't get to feel.

You may think that this blog isn’t about dementia care. It isn’t. It’s about self-care. It’s about choosing to exercise your ability to think abstractly, to listen and consider before rejecting a new or conflicting idea. Remember the old adage: “Use it or lose it.” The less you make conscious use of this ability to make conscious choices, the more rigid in your thinking you will become, making it almost as difficult for you to deal with change in any form as it is for your loved one.

For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.

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