He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God. –Luke 9:20
I like spiders, in a way. Perhaps said differently, I like things about spiders…always have. Growing up, we always had a garden and there would inevitably be a large garden spider or two nearby to collect the insect spoils from the crops…and I loved it. These spiders, accurately called the Argiope aurantia (although we called them Orbweavers or Zipper spiders), are common in our area and typically dine on grasshoppers who are no real friend to crops. I can remember like it was yesterday watching these impressive creatures fight, and typically win, against an unfortunate grasshopper nearly her size….and spin her up and feast. My brother and I, somewhat to the chagrin of my sister, would also find other bugs and feed them to the web to initiate war. You haven’t lived unless you have watched the battle of a june bug or a praying mantis versus a garden spider. Talk about a garden gladiator!!!
Last night and this morning there was a large spider (maybe not a garden spider, but one of similar size…perhaps a Furrow Orbweaver or a Spiny Orbweaver/Micrathena ) with an amazing residence set up above the exit to our house running from an overgrown gutter to a nearby shrub. She ate well last night, we can safely say.
So, what do spiders have to do with dementia? (Shoehorn search begins…I wonder if I can get a shoehorn engraved with the words “Some Pig”, “Terrific”, “Radiant” or “Humble.” ala Charlotte’s Web???) There are things we can learn as always:
Spiders and Dementia
- It is all about the tangles– Spider webs are sticky, sure…but what wakes them a mess is how they function. (Important) Watch this little video and join me in being amazed: Video. Spiders, despite not sticking to their own web, can wrap up lunch tightly and efficiently after it gets tangled up. Part of the notification system, if you will, is this fighting from inside the tangled-up mess the prey finds itself in. Until something is stuck to the web, it is often quite uniform and predictable looking…but once a tangle appears, all bets are off. (Note: some spiders actually hide among their tangles…see the video above). When the human brain is working correctly and in a healthy way, things are uniform. Point A memory draws from Point B through an interconnected network of memories and experiences and reference points. If one strand gets fouled, thinking/recalling/cognition gets harder. One of the expected chief causes of dementia are tangles in Tau. Tau, when working correctly, is like a tubular support that helps stabilize the skeleton of nerve cells. When it works, it is amazing. When it gets tangled by irregularities, it is weakened and causes a host of issues. Imagine comparing a fresh, new spider’s web with my little lady’s from last night that is full of spun treats and broken webs (probably by me before I noticed her).
- Circle after circle– It is fascinating how symmetrical and ornate a spider web is. Some kinds of Orbweavers even decorate with what looks like a zipper. There is method to the madness, though. They tend to circle up a web framework, run a few cross beams, then start spinning around and around… Beautiful and amazing. Speaking of circling, dementia often has some circling of its own. I have heard many similar stories to mom’s. She would walk back and forth, pacing anxiously, until she firmly had that path worked out. Any detour would immediately get brought back to the primary locations of comfort. Not unlike a spider building a web or a child not wanting to stray far away from the familiar, mom would predictibly wear paths to a few places out, over and over, and never beyond her ability to find her way back.
- Her eyes are limited, but she still has her Spidey Sense– It is amazing to note that spiders, despite having several eyes, don’t see well. They depend on the vibrations from the web to guide them to supper. Anything beyond that reference point becomes harder and more dangerous. I suspect that is why spiders often build and rebuild at the same location, although that may just be like when a fisherman finds a good fishin’ hole… Wandering outside of the web, if you will, was particularly dangerous for mom as she had no reference points that she could remember. As long as she stayed with us and near her primary couple of rooms that she stayed in, things were safe (in her mind), but when she deviated, anxiety ensued. Her field of visual cognition was shrinking and shrinking too, meaning she could “see” fine, especially after her eye surgery, but processing what she saw became more and more limited.
- Some scientists think a spider’s mind radiates through the strands of its web– I just thought that was an interesting line from the video and an interesting concept. A spider’s limitations are more than offset by its interaction with its web. It sees, “hears” and senses everything in its world best with this web. I think of caregiving, for better or worse, in this way too. In some ways the web of caregivers (whether they know they are or not) hide the onset of the disease. My step-dad enabled and he hid mom’s decline for probably a year or better, only setting her up to be comfortable and happy and not stressed with forgetting. He did the best he could. As the disease has progressed, mom’s web changed. We made up some strong strands of her web, but memory care did as well. Now, in the land of Shawshank, where we cannot be any support for her, she has had to rely on new strands…and I really don’t think this isolation has been best. Fortunately, the hazards are less common and the food is directly delivered…so the obvious negative effect is not visible…but they are there. You could tell last year when they called us in when she had her seizures and they feared her end was near….and, with us with her 24/7 she “got better”. I guess having the long-lived supports you are used to really does help.
- The web is a map of her memories– I was amazed at the thought of the web being a “map of memories”, as mentioned in the video. Isn’t that interesting? The web had wrapped up battles, it had holes, I suspect it had places to just hang out and live in the moment… I did some archaeology in college as I mentioned in a few other articles. Part of the purpose of being systematic in archaeology is because is necessary to do so in recreating the past. If you look really hard at the layers of the web, if you will, you can see the story. That is how I felt and still feel as I used to talk to the Sweet 17 and to mom for that matter. I could see the real person among the holes and broken spaces because of the holes and broken spaces at times. I hope that makes sense to you like it does in my pea brain.
- Blowing the cobwebs out– Watch this short video– (I am not sure that spider webs are truly invisible, but the rest makes good sense)- Cobwebs are just deserted active webs. Does that make you happy or sad? Happy that there is no spider or sad because there was one there and now it is likely in your shoe? And, what do we do when we see cobwebs when we are cleaning? We clean them out. I struggled when looking for the origin of this idiom. One website said this “This saying from the 1700s was an expression which related to cleaning one’s house of cobwebs. Once the house was clean, an association between satisfaction and a clear mind to get on with more stimulating tasks began to develop. Today when we speak of, blowing a away the cobwebs, we think of activities like going on a brisk walk, which will help us clear our heads of all the stresses of the day.” So, mixing our idioms and metaphors a bit, what kinds of things help in NOT needing to clear the cobwebs out? Sleeping enough, reducing stress, eating right, and, unscientifically I suppose, getting out in the sun, and interacting with the world. Even though it is hard sometimes to do these things, don’t you end up feeling more invigorated when you do? Not coincidentally, these are also important activities we need to do to fight/prevent dementia.
- Feeding the spider– Was it morbid for my brother and I to subvert the circle of life by feeding the spider? We were teen boys being teen boys. Maybe it was a little sadistic, but not atypical of the time although we might be jailed these days for harming the wrong bug…but I digress. In a weird way, this thought reminded me of the need for last directives/living will/DNR issues. We all NEED to make clear what we want the end to look like in our own lives. While we are well below the pay grade of the One who truly decides such, God does use means to accomplish everything. We shouldn’t leave it to our family to decide which heroic measures would be used and which would not. Mom made it VERY clear to us that she wanted to die naturally when it was time and didn’t want to be revived or have heroic measures utilized to try to save her. She wanted to be pain-free as much as is possible, but the rest is a thumbs down. (See these past articles). So, what do we do? We honor her wishes, made before she was spun in the web. We will be wrecked, but we will know we honored and loved her in the way she wanted…so we will rest in that. And, in the end, to me it is very interesting how a wrapped-up bug looks similar to a cocoon. I can rest in the fact that mom will enter this cocoon defeated, but will emerge in heaven as a new creation with no pain or sadness. If you are struggling with this decision, I am truly sorry and pray for wisdom and comfort as you weigh options. This is a terrible disease…there are few easy answers. It needs to go.
Update: Nothing new to report. I hope to see mom tomorrow morning. It was a long week last week and I had to miss one of my precious visits with jury duty…so I doubly look forward to seeing mom.
The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is Saturday morning in Springfield. If you would like to join or donate, here is a link: LINK It will be amazing again this year!
A spider I hand-sewed for my wife when we were yet dating…and she married me anyway: