Wet brain is an old world term for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. It is also called ARBD (Alcohol-Related Brain Damage) or even Alcohol Dementia (even thought it seems not to be “officially” Dementia as far as I can figure out!)
Please note, this is NOT a medical post, it is a caregiver post and includes my opinions. Any true medical talk is quoted or in links to reputable organizations. Additionally there could be affiliate links if I recommend products and I might get a wee bit of money.
Symptoms of Wet Brain
So let's get this out of the way right off the bat…. wet brain can include any or all of these things…”mental confusion, amnesia (a permanent gap in memory), and impaired short-term memory. ” source Caregiver.org
Official symptoms and what they mean to my family….
Confusion. Grams gets confused pretty easily if anything is not exactly the way she thinks it should be. For example, we were transferring her from the hospital to a (temporary) nursing home and she got super mad that the “hotel” was taking so long to check her out.
Amnesia (permanent gaps in memory). It is pretty clear that mom is living in 2012 (it is 2018 now). All of her points of reference are from when we lived in Colorado and she had an in-law-suite in the basement of our house there.
Impaired short term memory. For us this means that it is Groundhog Day every day (you know that super funny Bill Murray film, if you have a loved one with wet brain, make sure you watch it as a coping mechanism!) She cycles through time about 20 minutes at a time when she is in a good place, about every 5 minutes when she is stressed and every minute when she is freaked out. So if I tell her something now, in 20 minutes I will have to tell her again.
Unofficial symptoms that my mother in law has but your's might not…
Hoarding. Mom is not a hoarder in the creepy, keep all the garbage way, but she doesn't want us to get rid of any of “her” stuff. This can include things like, garbage left after medical tests are done, cups that are empty which we have to throw away on the sly and especially the socks they give you the hospital.
Stubbornness. Mom is super stubborn about almost everything. She can dig her heals in like no one's business and no one but her son can even come close to changing her mind. For example, after she had a seizure, collapsed and was unconscious, she screamed at me that she didn't need an ambulance or to go to the hospital (we called the ambulance anyways).
Not cleaning herself. She won't take showers, change her clothes unless forced to and will only take bird baths (washcloth and soap).
Judge-y and prejudice. Whoa nellie, mom does not like overweight people. Or people with “funny” hair. And she says so loudly, in public. At least she isn't calling people racial names, but it is pretty darn embarrassing anyways.
Mom is still Mom. One of our blessings is that Mom is still the same old gal she was before, except she can't remember much. It sounds like there are much worse diagnosis to live with, so we are happy she is still mostly the same!
Coping Mechanisms For Wet Brain Caregivers
Okay, let's get this out of the way first. I REALLY struggle with the alcoholic aspect of this and thinking that Mom has done this to herself through sustained consumption of epic amounts of wine. Sigh. But that doesn't help anyone, especially me. Double sigh.
So I try to find ways to make things better because we love Gram and I am teaching my children to be compassionate to people with disabilities.
Telling medical people that she is an alcoholic.
I don't know about your family, but in ours the fact that Mom loved her wine was no secret. But since she lived alone and we saw her every week or so, she was able to hide how much she was actually drinking on a daily basis.
About 3 months before she collapsed I started going with her to doctors appointments and I can tell you in unequivocally that she never told any of the doctors how much she was drinking.
At first I was mad at the medical community that they had let it get to the brain damage stage, but honestly, we didn't catch it so I can't be mad at them either (dammit, who DO I get to be mad at?)
NOT telling her things that will upset her until they are about to happen.
When we were adopting our kids from foster care we were horrified that they only told the kids we were coming 20 minutes before we met them the first time. Well now I totally understand why they did that.
Telling Mom that we are going to the doctor tomorrow has absolutely no relevance to her. She doesn't know what day today is so tomorrow is a foreign concept.
And it gets her wound up. She starts thinking about having to change her clothes or get ready to go and obsesses about it, for 20 minutes and then life resets. But why make her nervous for that 20 minutes in the first place?
Lying to her.
The hardest part in our house is telling our kids that we never lie and then lying to Gram all-the-time.
Seriously, we lie about her having bottles of wine at home when we are in the store (she can't drink anymore so she can't buy wine anymore), we lie about how long she will have to stay in the nursing home when she has to be medically admitted, we tell her little lies all day to make things easier for all of us.
I KNOW, this sounds super crappy, but reason isn't part of Mom's life anymore so the kind thing to do is make her less agitated which lying does.
Not asking her opinions.
As humans we are conditioned to being respectful to other people's wants and opinions, especially our parents. But honestly, she will ALWAYS choose against her best interests.
For example, if you ask Mom if she wants something to eat, her default is always, “no I will have something later”. Sigh. That is EXACTLY how we got in this situation.
If you ask her if she wants to take a walk or do her walker exercises or if she wants to do anything, she will say that she will do it later. Always later.
So we don't ask anymore.
Now I just make a snack and take it into her. We make her dinner and tell her it is time to eat. We grab her in the bathroom, hand her a washcloth and make her wash her lady parts.
Asking only makes me frustrated and doesn't get anything accomplished.
Finding things that comfort her.
These all sound really bad and manipulative, but we do super nice things for Mom too!
For example, when she went into the hospital for a stay, we brought her a pretty blue and white checkered blanket (actually the kids brought it to her with my prompting).
This made her feel special because all the nurses commented how pretty it was and she could say her grandchildren brought it for her. And then she got to have that same experience again because I took it home to wash it and the kids brought it again…. Groundhog Day people, it can work in your favor too!
Giving her something to live for.
One of the things that always made me nuts about my mother-in-law was how “wine-focused” her world was. She spent all her time thinking about when she was going to have wine, pick up wine, manage her wine bottles. And now that is gone.
So why would mom want to live? Well first off she loves her little dog Max almost as much as wine and also our son is a favorite of hers! Luckily he is a super caring guy and is mostly happy to help his Gram.
I also take her out to do things like go to the doctor, visit the fruit stand and pick up her medicine. Sometimes this is a pain because she sees wine, but tucking her into her room and leaving her there is not a life. And she forgets she saw wine 20 minutes later… work that memory loss to your advantage!
Getting Her To Stop Drinking
Okay, I wasn't sure I was going to cover this one, but we have been able to keep her sober for a few months now. That said I don't have any magical cures.
Let the doctor make the call. First off, if at all possible let their doctor make the decision that they can't drink anymore. Our Mom was hospitalized for a week and then in the nursing home for two weeks. Medically she was told that she should not drink anymore.
Find help. That said, no one who is an alcoholic stops drinking easily. One of my loved ones who has been sober for 20+ told me to recommend Alcoholics Anonymous for sure. If that is not an option, contact your church or other local services to get help.
Last but not least DO NOT try and just cut them off from alcohol without medical assistance. They detoxed Mom in the hospital, under medical supervision. You can cause serious problems by just taking them off booze without a doctor's assistance.
Do what you can. I am in a great Alzheimers/Dementia caregivers group and sometimes people ask for help. Their loved ones are violent or drink and drive. They refuse to stop drinking or hide alcohol and sneak it. In that case all you can do try to help them the best you can. Getting them to stop drinking may be beyond your ability and in that case do what you can and give yourself some grace!
What Is Wet Brain Wrapup
We are still pretty early in the process of helping Mom cope with wet brain. I am sure we will find more horrendous things and more great coping things as we go, and I will let you know!
If you have anything good to add, drop a comment below and share it with the rest of us! We can use all the help we can get.
Here are some actual medical articles I found helpful when mom first got diagnosed…