Annual Report 2010

Alzheimer's kills memories, not emotions

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Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of "Faith & Culture" on EWTN. Her website is

First published in St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 22, 2010

By Colleen Carroll Campbell

When I was 4, my father drove my older brother and me to Yellowstone National Park. We saw Old Faithful, rode horses and got outfitted head-to-toe in Western wear. I've seen the photos and heard the stories—especially the one about how I convinced Dad to buy me the store's last pair of non-refundable, red-leather cowboy boots, only to confess the next morning that they did not fit.

I still have those boots somewhere in a cobweb-covered box in my basement, along with a snapshot of Dad hugging my brother and me as the three of us squinted in the Wyoming sun. Aside from those mementos and a vague impression that we had fun, I have no memory of the trip.

It's a shame, considering the trouble my father took to get us there. But Dad never seemed to mind such things. He loved to show us new places, but mostly, he just loved us. And as long as his wife and children got that message, Dad did not much care if we remembered the details.

I thought about Dad last week, when I read about a new University of Iowa study that found patients with Alzheimer's-type memory loss can remember the emotional imprint of an experience even after they have forgotten the event itself. The study, led by neuropsychology doctoral student Justin Feinstein and published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted on patients with damage to their hippocampus, who suffer from the same type of amnesia that signals the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers showed the patients happy and sad film clips and then gave them memory tests. The patients could recall few details about what they had just seen, yet the feelings of joy or sorrow associated with the film lingered well beyond their memories of the film itself. The study suggests that even if a demented person cannot remember that you paid him a visit or engaged him in a pleasant conversation, he still can benefit from the good feelings wrought by your good deed.

It's a lesson that hits close to home. I watched my father battle Alzheimer's disease for 15 years, before it finally took his life in 2008. One of the hardest things about those years—especially for my mother, his faithful and exhausted caregiver—was hearing well-intentioned people dismiss the need for her solicitous care or their own failure to visit him by saying that "he doesn't remember anything anyway."

Like millions of Americans living with Alzheimer's disease, Dad's failure to recollect names, dates and faces left him vulnerable to social isolation and to neglect from overworked aides in the nursing home where my mother had to move him in his final years.

A few of those aides treated Dad with the same tender, loving care you would show a baby who could not communicate his needs. Too many others shouted orders at him, apparently mistaking his dementia for deafness. Some barely talked to him at all, assuming—as I heard one mutter while leaving his room—that creating a pleasant environment for Dad "doesn't matter because he doesn't know where he is anyway."

Dad's memory may have been ravaged in those last years, but his emotional acuity was keener than ever. Like an infant reacting to stresses in his surroundings, Dad's mood was mightily affected by the tone of voice and gentleness or harshness of another's touch. I could always tell when he had just had a visit—usually from my mom—because I would find him singing and smiling in his chair, peaceful and jolly amid the dreary ordinariness of nursing home life. I suspected my own visits had a similar effect, even though Dad often forgot them as soon as I left.

Alzheimer's is a devastating disease not only because of the confusion it sows in its victims, but also the sense of futility it breeds in their caregivers, who are tempted to despair that anything they do makes a difference. How nice that science finally has documented something devoted caregivers have known all along: Love is a gift never wasted, even if the one who receives forgets to say thanks.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of "Faith & Culture" on EWTN. Her website is