The Trial and Error Associated with Cognitive Decline

Westborough, MA May 25, 2017 Cognitive changes are common in patients with dementia. They become increasingly problematic with the disease progression. Some people suffering with dementia have difficulty with even the most basic activity of daily living like dressing themself.  Things taken for granted like following directions become a chore as the progression of dementia effects individuals who suffer with the disease.  This places a great burden on caregivers who must take over those important functions of daily life.
The clock drawing has been a feature on my blog for several years.  It is fun to see people work through the task.  Most people complete the task effortlessly.  Some are a bit defensive because it seems like such a benign request – “draw a clock…” and I often get “I am not an artist…” in anticipation of failure.  I have published over a dozen posts about the clock drawing as a measure of cognitive functioning.  Patient with dementia often experience a slow cognitive decline whereby even tasks like constructing a clock become a challenge.

The clocks drawn in this post reflect the effort of a person of 89-years of age who tried very hard to get it right.  She had enough preservation of her self- monitoring
Dementia_Clock female 89 Scan
3 Clocks drawn in succession by 89-year old female with hypoxia and underlying dementia of Alzheimer’s type – note size in centimeters 

that she could tell something was wrong.  As you can see the left most circle was the first attempt.  It was too small according to the patient and she wanted to try again.  The middle clock was her next attempt and shows her disorganization and minimal change in the size of the drawing – approximately 3 centimeters in size. In the center of the drawing there are 2 hands that roughly represent the time 11:10.  She told me she needed more space to place the hands so that they could be clearly read and offered to try a third time.  On the right is her final attempt.  There are two hands (to the right of the number 9 and a second pointing to the number 2). As you can see the circle is only 2 cm in size and was a modest improvement over the first two attempts.
She had fun drawing the clock and did not feel as though she had failed the task. I was encouraging and praised her for staying with the task. At some point she had lost her capacity to plan and execute her visual motor function of crafting the circle.  Each attempt was made with the goal of drawing a larger circle. This fine woman was still capable of doing many of her activities of daily living and enjoying her friends and family.  She was not at all upset that I had been asked to help with her care.
Dementia requires family support and can be costly to those in need of care.  The risk of caregiver fatigue exists in all families.  As much as possible, I enourage people to allow the patient to work toward completing their own self-care unless there are risks such as falling due to poor balance. This requires herculean patience and sensitivity because there is often a degree of “awareness” of the cognitive changes experienced by the patient himself. Preserved dignity and sense of independence go a long way toward quality of life in the latter stages of dementia.  Most spouses will do whatever it takes to support a loved one with whom they have shared 50 or more years of marriage and experience the decline in functioning as both a personal failure and a heart breaking loss.