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Mindlessness—the Benefits of Using Muscle Memory for Dementia

by Judy Cornish

In another blog I stated that mindlessness is just as valuable to people experiencing dementia as mindfulness is to those of us who have healthy brains. Let’s consider the mindlessness tool muscle memory, and why it’s so helpful when someone is losing rational thought and memory.

The value of muscle memory for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

When you wake up in the night, do you think consciously of which way to turn when you head for the bathroom? Have you ever moved to a new home and then months later found that while deep in thought you drove home to your old address, or reached for a mug in the direction it would have been in your previous home? That happened because you were not being mindful—not thinking consciously—and muscle memory took over.

Although it’s not a terribly helpful tool for those of us with healthy brains, muscle memory can be very useful when someone is experiencing dementia. People who are living in a home of many years do numerous tasks and activities using muscle memory. When they develop dementia, muscle memories can enable them to continue to function effectively for quite some time. Here are a few tips for preserving the benefit.

Don’t rearrange things in the current home.

When someone has dementia and is unable to use memory or rational thought to learn new patterns, avoid rearranging the furniture or contents of cupboards and drawers.

One of our clients was living in a home she and her husband had bought decades earlier. Her daughters lived in the Midwest but wanted their mother to remain in her own home as long as possible. Thinking it would help, the two of them arranged an extended visit and set about making her home safer and easier to live in. They rearranged the bedroom furniture so her side of the bed was closer to the bathroom. They rearranged the kitchen cupboards and cleaned out the closets and spare rooms so there was less clutter and everything she needed was in reach.

However, after they left, their mother was lost. Her home no longer looked or felt familiar to her. She no longer had automatic thinking scripts or muscle memory to guide her to the bathroom in the night or through her daily tasks. Although her daughters intended to be helpful and kind when they cleaned up and reorganized her home, the result was detrimental. It’s always best to try to keep the home and living space unchanged when someone has dementia.

Recreate the old home in the new home.

When a move is necessary, try to create spaces and views within the new home that match the previous one. Take photos of dresser tops, counters, picture arrangements, and china cabinets so you can recreate surfaces and entire walls of rooms so they look exactly the same. Arrange furniture so getting out of bed and heading for the bathroom requires going around the bed or around the corner in the same direction. Orient the living room so the front door or exit is in the same direction from the couch.

When we recognize the value of the mindlessness tools automatic thinking and muscle memory, we can enhance our loved ones’ functioning even when a move is necessary. Next week, let’s think about other ways to make transitions and moves easier for people experiencing dementia.


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