**If you have a loved one with dementia and you don’t have time to read this blog, skip to the end links for invaluable information on how you – the friend, family member, or caregiver – can survive this insidious disease.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995. At that time, the diagnosis was made from an extrapolation of symptoms, a process of elimination, and an educated guess. Now they have more sophisticated tests, but the outcome is the same: a sentence of decline, debilitation, and death.
We first noticed my father’s change in mental status when he could no longer balance his check book. He would get excessively frustrated about it, another symptom of Alzheimer’s. He was given a medication that would slow the effects, and he lived another 10 years, some of which was quite wonderful.
There were bad times too, when he struggled to express himself; when I’d come in to find it had gotten worse; when the need for adult diapers could no longer be avoided. Like all diseases, Alzheimer’s is the great equalizer, leaving both kings and paupers (and ex-presidents) a shadow of their former self.
I had a lot of help with his care. He was in assisted living so our time together was quality time. One of our favorite things to do was look at old photo albums and the hundreds of color slides he had taken as an amateur photographer. The slides went back to 1939! In those moments, he would remember names, places, and events as if they were yesterday. We also watched movies, usually old, usually ones he had seen when he was younger. Again his memory was spot-on, recalling actors’ names and even other parts they had played.
Here’s what I learned:
Never argue. The person is living in the moment and what you told them a minute ago is gone as if it had never been. Their perception is based on a different plane than ours. If they say the sky is green, you answer with a smile, “Oh? Tell me about it.”
Keep the mood happy: Dementia sufferers are sensitive to the moods around them. If you are stressed, negative, or depressed, they can sense it, and often, like a child, take it personally, wondering what they did wrong. Your positive mood may be their lifeline to a happy mood for themselves.
Distraction: When the person gets off on a tangent, you can gently guide them to another, more pleasant subject. Sing a song, watch a movie, or look at pictures. Rather than conversation, which may be hard for them to follow, try using the senses. “Look at the squirrel outside the window”, “Smell the chocolate pudding”, “Feel how soft this fleece blanket is!”
Avoid questions. Questions can be confusing, and the search for an answer, frustrating.
Say one thing at a time.
Don’t worry about small problems.
Be Always in THEIR world.
Think ahead: If a diagnosis of dementia is made, begin to form a plan now, because things will change, and not for the better. Alzheimer’s and dementia are scary as hell, but you can still find happiness by reaching out for help, learning all you can, and hearing about how others managed to cope.
The best reference on real life dementia, written by a geriatrician and a caregiver: Help is Here: When Someone You Love has Dementia by Dr. Marian O. Hodges and Anne P. Hill
Fact Sheet : Caregiver’s Guide to Understanding Dementia Behaviors by Family Caregiver Alliance
Communication Strategies for Dementia by Jeff Anderson