Consciousness remains as memory dissolves
The experience of observing a beloved parent's mind diminish from dementia or Alzheimer's is difficult to endure, but it also raises fascinating questions about the mind, brain, soul and consciousness.
Consciousness is pure awareness. It is the ability to be aware that we are aware. It is different from the "content" of your consciousness which may comprise all of your experiences, knowledge, relationships and beliefs. In my own experience with my mother's dissolving memory, I see that she no longer remembers all of what she was, but she knows that she is. She exists, she feels, she wonders about her world; she is fully conscious.
Yet, who is it that is existing as my mom? It's not the resourceful, powerful mother of six and real estate broker she once was. She seems to have been "reduced" to an essence that is pure awareness, but that sense of "reduction" must be my own interpretation.
Who can judge that one is less because one is no longer productive? Infants just lay there doing nothing and we don't judge them as unproductive. We think of infants as having potential. But elders with dementia do not appear to have potential, so it is easy to see them as less. However, there is always more to Life than meets the eye.
Perhaps that dissolution of all but consciousness is part of our evolution as spiritual beings into pure essence. For eons monks and nuns meditated in caves attempting to throw off all identifying labels to become nothing but pure consciousness! When I stopped resisting my mother's experience and started observing it as non-judgmentally as possible, I saw that without all the identifying labels (mother, wife, worker, volunteer, painter), she was becoming more of the essence of who she was and perhaps who we all are: simply beings (hopefully loving) connected through consciousness to everything else.
What happened to all of the good things she did, all of the religious practices and beliefs? Where are they stored now? Is her soul the storehouse of her evolvement? Some say that when we die, the content of our consciousness (or our "character") is what we take with us. If the brain can't remember any of that evolution, surely it can't be lost or wasted. Albert Einstein concluded that we live in a benevolent universe. It doesn't make sense in a benevolent universe that all of the understanding gained is ever lost. If so, there would be no evolving consciousness, and there clearly is as the world continues to change.
My spiritual community, Unity, has a principle that guides me in embracing the experience of life that my mother and I are having with her dementia. It's a scientific principle as well: nothing is ever lost in the universe. It only changes. Do not judge; wait and see what happens.
A few years ago, my mom had a little plaque that read: "Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most." Who inside her is doing the missing of the mind? We are more than we think we are and our diminishing loved ones have much to teach us.
I am the volunteer Marketing Director for Unity Spiritual Center in Westlake.