Dementia and the chronology of the soul

Andy Drymalski is a licensed psychologist in Reno, Nevada. He has worked with persons living with dementia and their caregivers for over 20 years. Recently, Andy shared this article he wrote about dementia and time.

When asked why he wrote the article, Andy said “I was inspired to write it out of my respect for the soul, which I believe is eternal and the core of individuality within each person.” He also hopes that reflecting on time and how it differs for those living with Alzheimer’s might help caregivers.


Written by Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.

Betty is 82 years-old and developing dementia. The clock that hangs on the wall of her room kept dropping its minute hand so I fixed it for her. Now the hands stay on but the time is off, sometimes by hours. Helen is 85 and lives down the hall from Betty. Her battery-operated clock is the centerpiece of a plaque that commemorates her years of service to her employer. First the hands were getting stuck on each other. Then the battery died. Then the clock wouldn’t run even with a fully charged battery.

Dr. Andy Drymalski

I’ve observed that as people approach the end of their lives, the more problems they have with their clocks and watches. The hands fall off or get bent, they don’t get wound, the chimes don’t match the time, or the internal mechanisms break. Clocks fall off the wall. Watches are lost. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two tests used to evaluate people for dementia relate to time. In one, the person is asked to draw the face of a clock from memory. In the other the individual is asked to give the current time, date, and year.

Our measurement of time is a man-made thing, a social convention. The divisions of a day into 24 hours, an hour into 60 minutes, and a minute into 60 seconds are arbitrary. We could have a 20 hour day, a 90 minute hour, and a 48 second minute if we wanted to. Thus, our ability to speak the conventional language of time can be a barometer of our rootedness in consensual (accepted, societal) reality.

As the deeper personality pushes for recognition and expression in later life, worldly structures and social conventions begin to fall away. Life is lived more at the level of feelings and formative memories. As if in a dream, the inner world may get projected onto the outer world more and more when individuals develop dementia. Daughters become mothers; husbands become fathers, caregivers take on the role of a sibling.

Like a melting clock in a Salvador Dali picture, societal and conventional knowledge turns from solid to liquid and begins to fall away. While some say people in the later stages of dementia have lost touch with reality, they may actually be reflective of a more raw and fundamental reality. Their statements and behavior are more symbolic. Trying to orient them to your understanding of reality is likely to only agitate them. They get frustrated because they don’t feel understood. You are living in two different worlds.

The chronology of man, and of the ego, bow before the chronology of the soul.

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