Two of the most dreaded words in our vocabulary are “Alzheimer’s disease.” We don’t want to hear those words particularly as it relates to those we love, those who are most dear to us.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one type of dementia, marked by many losses, difficult emotions, and painful decisions. A friend recently diagnosed said, “what I miss most is my brain.”
Thankfully, there is more hope for treatment of Alzheimer’s today than there has ever been. There are effective medications available as well as therapeutic options such as exercise, yoga, spending time in nature, etc.
Those affected by Alzheimer’s typically lose short-term memories first, which can be quite troubling to families.
Behaviors can be triggered by our responses; the greater our self-awareness, the more we can relate positively to those affected by AD. Repeated stories or questions can be frustrating; remembering that the person with AD may not remember that he/she just had breakfast or doesn’t realize it is bedtime, can help us be more patient.
Long-term memories can be troubling or comforting to the person with AD. These memories are confusing because the person is not able to differentiate current reality from the past.
I worked with Pam, a social worker who was visiting Jane, an 86-year-old woman. Jane was crying profusely because according to her, “her father died that morning.” Pam encouraged Jane to sit down with her on a comfortable sofa, and they began talking about Jane’s father and memories with him. One of her fondest memories was gardening with her father.
Pam and Jane began talking about gardening and even went to look at a painting of a lovely flower garden. Within 45 minutes, Jane went from being troubled about her father’s death to her love for beautiful flowers! It is crucial to validate the person’s reality rather than attempting to bring them up to date; this typically results in anger and further confusion.
Playing hymns from childhood is often soothing; sometimes a person may join in singing hymns even when most language seems to be gone. I recall being with a man who was dying; his pastor came in to visit the man and his spouse.
As the pastor was praying for the man, the pastor began quoting Psalm 23. To the surprise of those of us nearby, the man who had been non-verbal and seemingly unaware of his circumstances for many months, began quoting Psalm 23 with his pastor. Those words of hope and comfort were likely long-term memories that were sustaining him even to the point of death.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble … The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” – Psalm 46:1, 7
God is present in all of life, even in times that are most troubling. Thanks be to God!
Written by Cheryl Johnson, director of healthcare services for Buckner Retirement Services.