At the end of June, I had the opportunity to experience the first ever North American Dementia Action Alliance Conference in Atlanta. This was an amazing event, the best and most moving dementia conference I have ever been to, and it scrambled my brain in the very best way.
The conference organizers included persons with early-stage dementia in their planning. There were many speakers at the conference who also had dementia, who spoke movingly and clearly about horrendous experiences with diagnosis (example: essentially being told by the doctor to “get your affairs in order”, and just prepare to curl up and die) the stigma that accompanies the diagnosis, the despair the ensues, and the long climb back into hope, purpose and connection which now fills their lives.
There were 30 persons who attended the conference who are currently living well with dementia, and doing amazing things. Yes, they run on adrenaline in conference situations and there is another side to their lives that conference goers like me can only imagine, i.e. the utter exhaustion at the end of the day, the confusion that comes and goes, the losing one’s way in a large hotel, the forgetting a portion of what happened this morning.
Here are 10 things I learned:
Might they be doing a whole lot better now? I think they might. But it is never too late to support people in finding a sense of purpose and meaning, and never too late to treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve. It is with a renewed and profound sense of purpose that I will continue to learn about dementia from the real experts, and to advocate for them, all along the way.
-Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dimensions Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org
Our Memory Care program at Ebenezer now has a name – Dimensions. Dimensions has five building blocks:
We have gathered best practices in each of these realms and are giving our sites the tools they need to implement them effectively and consistently.
I chose the name Dimensions not just because it sounds like the word dementia, but because of all the things the word demands that we think about, such as . . .
The person with dementia has many different dimensions
We can’t assume that what we see or hear or assume about a person is all of what is there. We must be curious, patient and respectful as we work to discover the length, breadth and depth of each person’s history, personality, preferences, sense of purpose, habits, idiosyncrasies, hot buttons, skills (yes, these people still have skills) and strengths. Their long-term interests and passions need to be encouraged. These people still have a sense of humor and a need to laugh, even if that doesn’t seem obvious.
The spiritual dimension
Did you know that some Native American cultures believe that persons with dementia are doing important spiritual work—communicating with spirits at a level the rest of us cannot understand. I love the inspiration this idea provides. It spurs me to work hard to create more and more calm in our Ebenezer environments.
Imagine how we might honor and reward care partners and caregivers if we all agreed that persons with dementia were indeed doing the most important spiritual work on the planet!
Imagine the environments we would build for these folks! Imagine the walking paths, the sense of peace and purpose, the accessibility of nature.
The spiritual dimension is indeed another dimension of the person to consider in order to give them the care they require. What moments in their life do they hold as sacred? When do they feel most at peace, most at one with all things? Where have they found solace during hard times in the past? It is important to ponder these questions, search for clues, and to ask the individual, if they are able and willing to respond to them.
The point I am making is part of the theme that I often remind myself and all those whom I train on various dementia care topics: People with dementia are PEOPLE, first and foremost. They have needs (to be filled) and quirks (to be enjoyed) just like the rest of us. There are things that make them laugh (to be discovered and used as often as possible). They have likes and dislikes (to be respected) good days and bad days (to be tolerated) and they have courage and resilience (to be admired and emulated).
A person with dementia NEVER stops being a person.
With thanks to Megan Carnarius, author and nursing home operator, for the insight on Native American beliefs.
Dimensions Program Coordinator
If you have ever surfed websites of senior housing options, I bet you have frequently run into the term “person-centered care” which we owe to Dr. Thomas Kitwood, a British physician who focused on the importance of remembering that a person with dementia is first and foremost a PERSON with particular needs, challenges, strengths and preferences.
Cannot expect persons with dementia to think like we do
It is also due to Dr. Kitwood’s brilliant work that nurses are no longer trained to try to orient persons with dementia to reality, e.g., “No, no, Mrs. Jones, it’s 2017 now – actually your mother is dead, and the farm has been sold!” Thank goodness for Tom Kitwood! He helped us understand that we cannot expect persons with dementia to think like we do. As I’ve heard nursing home operator and author Megan Carnarius say, “We need to cross to their side of the street.” People with dementia simply cannot come over to ours. We need to give them responses that make sense with the way in which they understand the world.
Dementia expert Elion Caspi encourages us to also think about dementia care as “relationship-based care.” If we do not maintain relationship and genuine connection with persons with dementia, trust wears thin. As a result, it becomes challenging for persons with dementia to accept the care they need.
Lost in the grief
It is completely understandable that care partners are exhausted. They often get caught up in the grief of losing the precise relationship they had with their loved one before dementia was part of the picture. All too often, people become angry and bitter, even to the point of saying things such as “Alzheimer’s is worse than death.” That is a direct quote from the despondent husband of a wonderfully clever woman; let’s call her “Pam,” with whom I worked for some years. What a heartbreaking pronouncement from her husband! At this point, Pam still loved to share opinions and insight, sing Broadway tunes, reminisce, walk, dance, and hold hands.
A person is NOT their Alzheimer's disease any more than a person who has cancer is their cancer!
Those of us who have had family members with dementia or other progressive diseases do understand from whence that sentiment arises. However, it is ultimately not a helpful one. Nor is it accurate. It implies that we might as well give up on a person who is still very much alive. This could not be further from the truth. A person is NOT their Alzheimer’s disease any more than a person who has cancer IS their cancer. The person, an intact spiritual being, is still there, though many of their needs have changed dramatically. We do our loved ones a disservice if we refuse to rise to the occasion of their increased needs.
Maintain connections along the way
There are many gifts to be gained by accepting where the person is at, through each and every phase of their dementia experience. There is connection to maintain all along the way. How we connect will vary with different types and different phases of dementia, but in general, smiling, eye contact, gentle touch and approach, curiosity, acceptance of where the person is, conversation about things that are meaningful to the person, sharing laughter, singing, enjoying simple pleasures, giving compliments, promoting calm, validating the person’s feelings, doing things just the way the person likes, making things easier for them, reminiscing, having fun together, sparking creativity, enjoying humor….well, the list of what can be done to maintain a healthy, nurturing relationship goes on and on.
Responding to the world from an earlier developmental time
In short, we can treat the person like a PERSON, and remember that even though this person is losing skills, even though this person may enjoy and indeed benefit from things that children like, this person is still an adult who is simply responding to the world from an earlier developmental time. This person still has strengths and skills we must actively encourage and appreciate in order for them to have a meaningful life.
Language is powerful
Did you notice that I’ve been using the term “care partner” rather than “caregiver?” Language is powerful. When the relationship between a person with dementia and someone caring for them is viewed more as a partnership, what’s implied is that both persons have something to give. Think about it…What might persons with dementia still have to offer us, their care partners?
Some bonds remain unbreakable
They can give valuable input as to what they like and what they don’t like. They can lend us wisdom from past experience; they can share memories of olden days, with humor and perspective. They can inspire us with their courage and resilience. They can give us love. In this process, we may be surprised at how flexible our own capacity to love may become. Even in the late stage of their dementia, our loved one may remind us how some bonds remain unbreakable. Caring for persons with dementia may give us more patience and more appreciation for wordless communication and for life than we’ve ever known.
We are in this together
Thinking about our relationship as a partnership will help make us more open to a person’s participation and input. We just might respect, value and love this person all the more. We are not the same as this person, and we have each been impacted by dementia and changed forever in vastly different ways, but surely we are in this together.
--Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dementia Care Program Coordinator
If I am in the earliest phase of dementia, I generally will hide my deficits pretty well, even though I may be experiencing fear and anxiety as I realize that my brain is not functioning as well as it used to. Because people with dementia lose skills in the reverse order that children gain them, this phase represents the loss of my Adult Learning. This means that those skills that I got really good at when I became a full-fledged adult will be the first abilities that I lose. I may have challenges with word-finding, vocabulary and math. I may have issues with driving (car accidents, tickets) and my checkbook may become increasingly confusing and difficult for me to manage. I might mix up medications, so please keep an eye on that. I can’t seem to plan an event any more, make a shopping list, or even cook a whole meal. Multitasking is way too overwhelming for me. My speech may become vague as I struggle to remember the details of whatever you are asking me about.
It is important (not just now but throughout the dementia experience) that you as my care partner remember and focus on the strengths that I still have. There are many! In this early phase, I still have a sense of humor. Please help me find opportunities to laugh. Ask me questions you know I can still answer. (Do not quiz me to remind me of what I am forgetting.) I still have the capacity for ideas and decisions, so be sure to give me some choices. Relationships are still important to me. Please reassure me that you care. Hold my hand and speak to me with warmth and kindness. I still have interests. Help me explore them. I will have fun reminiscing with you about days gone by because my long-term memory is still really good. I can probably still use clocks, watches and calendars to some degree. Give me reminder notes if those still work for me.
In this phase, I will most of all need compassion and understanding. I am still a person, a person whose spirit is experiencing considerable anguish at the moment. Please avoid arguing with me, and do whatever you can to make things easier for me. But please try not to scold or embarrass me in the process. If you see that I am frustrated, it’s okay to say, “It’s so frustrating, isn’t it!” Please don’t take it personally if I get mad at you or seem to blame you at times. I do this because I am scared. I have a sense that I am losing control. If you can let my frustrations roll off your back and just acknowledge that I seem upset, if you can apologize to me even though you don’t know what you did to provoke my anger, I bet I will relax, and this might even encourage me to share my deeper feelings with you. I so need your love, support and your patience at this time. Thank you for asking me what I need!
--- Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dementia Care Program Coordinator
This blog was inspired by information and insight in the book A Deeper Perspective on Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias, by Megan Carnarius.
When persons with dementia move into a memory care community, it can take from several weeks up to three months or more for the person to adjust and feel comfortable with the new environment and routine. From my personal experience working with memory care residents at one assisted living for over a decade, I would say the average amount of time before the person settled in was no longer than a month. Your loved one may be angry for a while, and may seem more confused than before. This is a perfectly normal phase. Rest assured, things will improve in time. Here are ten tips to help ease the transition:
There are many different ways that families communicate with their loved one about a move to memory care. The most successful plan will be designed to meet your loved one’s needs. Some family members don’t tell the person they are going to move, knowing this could create undue anxiety. Other families are completely honest with their loved one about the need for “more care” and they have their loved one participate in the move. However you decide to handle the communication, make sure all family members are on the same page, and keep in mind the following guidelines:
DON’T keep reminding your loved one they are moving if it makes them anxious. You might try telling them once, in a matter of fact manner, to see how they take it. If it stresses them out to talk about a move, don’t keep bringing it up.
DO reassure the person that they will be getting more help. Because of their dementia, they may bring up the same concerns or fears over and over. Let the person voice their concerns, and be understanding in your replies, i.e. “I can see why you’re worried about that. We’ll figure it out.”
DON’T pull your loved one into the details of the planning and packing process. Don’t ask them to decide what to bring and what to leave behind. With memory loss, decision making and any process with multiple steps will present challenges. If you don’t already know which objects or knick-knacks are most important to your loved one, spend time observing what things around their home they use and enjoy on a regular basis.
DO work with a move manager. A great example comes from a family who had one daughter take mom out for a morning of shopping followed by lunch, while the other daughter was assisting the move manager. The move manager set up the new apartment to look almost identical to the room in the old house where mom spent most of her time. When they brought mom into her new apartment, she knew something was different, but she felt very much at home right away.
DON’T over-pack. Memory care apartments are small for a reason – large spaces with lots of “stuff” can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for people with memory loss. A smaller space with a manageable amount of items in it eases the mind. Again, pay attention to what your loved one actually uses throughout the day and bring just what he or she needs. If your loved one misses something, you can always bring it later.
DO consider leaving the TV at home. As memory loss progresses, TV shows can be hard for people to follow. They can also be upsetting, as they can be confused with reality. Bring music, family photo albums and art or photography books instead – they are more therapeutic. Consider leaving valuables behind too. A person with dementia often picks something up, puts it down, and then forgets where it is. Save yourself the heartache of a missing wallet or priceless family heirloom by not bringing it to the new memory care apartment.
DON’T get started too late in the day. Try to get the move done so that your loved one is settled in their apartment by 2 or 3 p.m. at the latest. As the day progresses we all get tired, but a person with dementia will not cope as well as the rest of us. Enlist more moving help if you need the extra hands to be finished by 2 p.m. – it will make the transition smoother.
DO remember that people usually adjust quite well to their new environment, but that this could take around 2-4 weeks. Be reassured in knowing the staff in the memory care community are there to help your loved one settle into a comfortable routine. Because the new environment (not only the apartment but also the programming and the structure of the day) is designed to fit the needs of a person with dementia, you will start to notice your family member more at ease than they were before the move. When your focus returns to your relationship with your loved one, rather than the details of day to day caregiving, you will also be more content, knowing you have made the right decision.
It will probably come as no shock to caregivers out there, that persons with dementia can at times be very stubborn, critical or emotional. They might start yelling or become physically aggressive. Upsets can escalate quickly and become extreme. The person might refuse to let you, the caregiver, assist them with personal care. It may seem to you that your loved one is responding “inappropriately,” and that this reaction is out of balance to the situation. Why must they get so upset over what seems to you to be something quite insignificant? Why won’t Mom let you comb her hair, for example, when she’s always been so particular about how she looked?
The first thing to realize, and it can be tough for family members to reframe things in this way, is that the person with dementia is not acting “inappropriately.” They are simply responding the only way they know how, given that their brain is damaged. Mom won’t let you comb her hair because she is trying desperately to communicate a need. Maybe her head hurts. Maybe the feel of the comb going through her hair is tingly and unpleasant. Maybe she simply wants to do it herself and not feel like she is being treated like a child. These feelings and/or sensations will be more important to Mom than that fact that Mom used to pay more attention to her appearance, which Mom is not at all concerned with right now.
Mom’s brain is no longer wired to think the way she used to think. But Mom is still a person, with very real needs. It is our job as caregivers to do our best to identify what the need is, and to respond in such a way that the person feels soothed and validated, rather than aggravated.
Some common causes of these so-called “catastrophic reactions” are as follows:
Tips for responding effectively to these situations:
--Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dementia Care Program Coordinator
"Mom, I don’t feel safe in the car with you.”
“Dad, I think your eyesight is getting worse.”
“I don’t think you should drive anymore.”
If you’ve said, or had these thoughts while driving with an older adult close to you, it may be time for a conversation.
How do you know when driving is becoming more difficult for seniors? Look for these signs:
There are steps you can take now to help make the transition easier:
One of the most common types of dementia, Lewy Body Dementia causes problems with thinking, movement, behavior and mood. There are two types of Lewy Body dementia:
1. Dementia with Lewy Bodies. This is when people FIRST have a decline in cognition,
then, within a year, develop movement problems.
2. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. This is when people FIRST show symptoms of a
movement disorder, then, after a year or more, cognitive symptoms arise.
After the first year, the symptoms of the two types look very similar.
How should you respond to a person’s hallucinations or delusions? Tune in to the person’s emotions. Determine whether the hallucinations are upsetting for the person, or not. If the hallucination or delusion causes no danger or upset for the person, there is no need to do anything except validate the person’s perception or belief, i.e. “Huh. That’s interesting.” If the hallucination is upsetting, respond to the emotion expressed: “I can see why you’re upset.” Agree, sympathize, and validate BEFORE offering reassurance, i.e., “Of course you’re annoyed by all those little people running around. But I’ve got the situation under control.” You can offer the person empathy and concern: “I’d feel that way too, if that was going on in my room. Let’s go for a walk, they’ll go home soon.” Then, clearly and firmly, give the “little people” some direction, i.e., “Okay, kids, you’ve got ten minutes to get out of here.”
A variety of professionals can help manage the person’s disease. Medication may be helpful in some situations. Therapists (physical, speech, and occupational) can help with movement issues, swallowing and vocal problems, and can help to identify ways daily activities can be made easier for the person. Palliative Care Specialists can help manage constipation, sleep disorders and behavior problems.
If you are the primary caregiver for someone with Lewy Body dementia, make sure you have a team of professionals in place, and make sure you find respite for yourself as needed.
--Adapted by Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dementia Care Program Coordinator, from Lewy Body Dementia Information for Patients, Families and Professionals, NIH Publication No. 13-7907, September 2013
There’s a lot of confusion out there about what is Alzheimer’s and what is dementia. Is there any difference between the two? Is one worse than the other? People sometimes assume there is no difference, or they get the false impression that when dementia gets “really bad," it becomes Alzheimer’s disease. That’s false, and very misleading. Dementia is a very general term, and is not a disease, in and of itself. It’s a syndrome, which simply means a collection of symptoms. In the case of dementia, the symptoms are evidence of a decline in mental functioning. Memory loss is usually the first thing we focus on when we start to list those symptoms, but it’s very important to recognize that dementia causes people to lose an important number of skills (language skills, motor skills, judgment, the ability to plan, to name a few), things that most people take for granted every day. As a result, people with dementia need a lot of help to manage their days.
There are many different diseases and conditions that can cause the symptoms of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is one of them. In fact it is the most common cause of dementia; experts say it is responsible for 50 – 80% of the dementia that we see.
Dementia is not considered to be a normal part of aging, even though the chances for developing it increase as we age. By the time we reach the age of 85, 50% of us have dementia. Experts recommend that exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain. Other lifestyle choices that may help ward off dementia include a healthy diet, getting plenty of mental stimulation from purposeful, pleasurable activities, quality sleep, successfully managing stress, trying new things, and maintaining social connections and interactions.
--Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dementia Care Program Coordinator
Dementia Care Coordinator
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