Reaching Out to People with Dementia
As we get older, many of us have someone in our lives who has dementia. Maybe it’s your aging father in the nursing home, or your spouse who is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, or even a neighbor. Maybe they’re not making sense or don’t respond when we say something. What’s the best approach to people whose minds may be debilitated?
Because Alzheimer’s damages pathways in the brain, it’s sometimes difficult to find the right words and to understand what others are saying. Your loved one may incorrectly substitute one word for another or invent an entirely new word to describe a familiar object. He or she may get stuck in a groove—like a skipping record—and repeat the same word or question over and over. They may curse or use offensive language.
The effects of dementia not only change over time but also may be better on some days and worse on others, so caregivers need to be flexible and open to whatever is happening. As the dementia gets worse, the person may not be able to communicate at all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage with others or don’t have needs or feelings.
Every Behavior Has a Purpose
If the person with dementia can’t tell us what they need, they may do something that seems inexplicable to us, like taking all the clothes out of the closet on a daily basis. Perhaps the person is fulfilling a need to be busy and productive.
Agitation may be triggered by a variety of things, including environmental factors, fear and fatigue. Most often, agitation, which includes irritability, sleeplessness and verbal or physical aggression, is triggered when the person feels that “control” is being taken away. Sometimes this can be handled in small ways, such as allowing someone who believes money is missing to keep small amount in a handbag or pocket.
Many people might decide to stop visiting a parent or spouse, for example, because the person with dementia doesn’t seem to recognize them or doesn’t react to them. Yet new research shows that even when the person with dementia doesn’t remember a visit, the feelings will stay with them. A new study suggests that even if people with the mind-robbing illness quickly forget a visit or other event, the emotions tied to the experience may linger.
Despite their problems, people with dementia often retain their ability to feel emotions and to sense emotions of others. A daughter, tired because of caregiving for her mother, one day sat near her mother and started talking about how tired and sad she was. Her mother reached out her hand and squeezed the daughter’s hand in sympathy. The shocked daughter realized that her mother, despite her dementia, retained her ability to feel love and sympathy, and had sensed the daughter’s sorrow and responded to it. . . . After this incident, the daughter started spending time with her mother just holding her hand, or talking of simple things, not asking questions or expecting answers, and found that she was able to connect back to the affectionate mother for at least some time every day.”