Nikkei Voice: Traveling to Japan With a Loved One Who Has Dementia

June 1, 2018 • Asakawa, Columnists

By Gil Asakawa

Gil Asakawa

My mom has suffered from worsening dementia for years, and when my brothers and I saw increasing signs that she would no longer be able to live by herself, we moved her into a Memory Care Center nearby.

Two years ago, my wife, Erin, and I took the last of several trips to Japan with my mom. She has a brother in Sapporo, and another brother lived in Nemuro, her hometown in eastern Hokkaido, until he passed away in January 2016. His widow, my aunt, still lives in the small fishing town. And in Tokyo, my mom has a distant cousin of my dad, who has been her close friend for many decades.

When we planned this final trip, we told my mom it’s a “goodbye” trip to Japan because she wouldn’t be able to travel overseas anymore, and she needed to say goodbye to everyone there. The first time we went, she showed some signs of her deteriorating dementia and couldn’t remember some things. The next time, we stayed in the same hotel room so she couldn’t wander around the hotel (or god forbid, the streets of Tokyo or other cities we traveled in). So, this was her farewell tour. We couched it as a chance to visit her hometown to see her brother Kazuya’s remains in the Buddhist temple, but also said it would be the last time she’d see Nemuro or the rest of Japan.

She didn’t quite get the concept.

“Huh?” she said. “I always tell everybody ‘bye bye’ when we come home, but we go back again next year, neh?”

“Uh, no,” we told her.

Although physically she’s surprisingly healthy (she’s only 84 now), my mom’s mental capacity was diminished to the point where she couldn’t remember where we’d been or who we’d visited the night before. But we felt it was important for mom to go back to Japan one more time — after my dad died, she’d gone a few times. She expected to keep traveling to Japan every year, or every other year.

Because of her OCD tendencies, her trips over the Pacific always followed the same pattern: flying to Tokyo, then transferring flights to go immediately to Chitose Airport south of Sapporo, which makes for a long day of flying. Then there was an hour-plus train ride to Sapporo. We almost always stayed at the same hotel several blocks’ walk from the Sapporo train station.

After two days max in Sapporo, where we’d have a couple of meals with her brother, Fumiya, and his wife, Mitsuko, we’d trudge back to the train station and take a daylong ride to eastern Hokkaido, transferring once to a much smaller (one car) train on a narrow, toylike track for the last several hours until we arrived in Nemuro. We usually stayed in the same hotel there, too.

After a couple of days in Nemuro, visiting with her brother, Kazuya, and his wife, Eiko, we’d take a two-hour bus ride to a small regional airport and fly down to Tokyo. We’d spend several days in Tokyo, mostly visiting with Mrs. Yanagi, an old friend who was related to my dad, and her daughter, Hiroko, and her husband, Tsuyoshi, and her brother, Atsushi. We’d have a couple of meals together, and my mom would spend a full day alone with her old friend.

That was pretty much the basic Japan trip as far as my mom was concerned. We added on extra legs like a trip south to Hiroshima and then Kyoto on one trip, and a leg west to Denver’s sister city Takayama on another trip. My mom put up with the extra travel only because she got to do her usual circuit first.

Mom with my Aunt Eiko and some of the messages friends wrote to my mom. (Photo: Gil Asakawa)

For this final trip to Japan, Erin came up with a great idea that I recommend to anyone who is a family caregiver traveling with a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient. Document the trip as you go, so your loved one can relive the experience anytime.

We bought a small sketchbook, some tape, a nice pen and a Polaroid camera (there are several digital cameras now available that produce or print photos on the spot).

Everywhere we went, we took photographs of my mom with family and friends, and then we printed them out.

We taped the images in a small sketchbook and had my mom write a caption for each photo that stated the date of the picture, who is in it, where it was taken and what we’re doing. She resisted at first and only wrote in the sketch book reluctantly. But wherever we went, her friends and family ooohed and aaahed over the book and began writing their own messages to my mom because they could all tell, and they understood that this visit would be my mom’s last. Soon, my mom came around and got into writing more complete notes.

When we returned to Colorado, my mom didn’t believe me that we had just gone to Japan together. But we had proof. Within a few days, we mounted the pages of the sketchbook into a proper photo album/scrapbook and also added more photos.

She still doesn’t remember the trip, but we brought the photo album to her at the Landmark Memory Care Center, and she seems to experience her final Japan trip as if it were the first time she was seeing the images.

She marvels at her white hair, asks who everyone is (until she reads aloud the names from captions that she wrote) and some long-recessed memories have surfaced. She saw a woman in a photo I took of my mom having dinner with a group of childhood friends, and after recalling her name, my mom gave a passionate and detailed description of the friend’s house, just a few doors down from my grandmother’s house. That night in Japan after my mom had dinner, she couldn’t remember her friend. But now the memories flood back, triggered by something in the small still image. It’s a cliché, but one picture truly can be worth a thousand words.

I guess if there’s a blessing in dementia, it’s that for my mom, everything old can be new again.

Gil Asakawa is the P.C. Editorial Board Chair and will be on a panel discussing family caregiving at the JACL National Convention in Philadelphia, July 18-22.

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