Have you ever been in line at the checkout and the guy behind you is getting too close….awkwardly close? How do you react? What is your body language like? What is your facial expression?
I’ll bet your expression is a cross between curiosity and suspicion. Your eyes are watching carefully; you’re on high alert. Your body language is likely standoffish and you’re tense; you’re ready to react or even defend yourself if necessary.
Is that normal? Perhaps it’s a bit stronger than necessary for a checkout lineup, but your natural instinct is to protect yourself. You interpreted the intrusion of your personal space as a possible threat, and you’re on high alert until the threat subsides.
This human instinct to protect yourself and your personal space is a normal human reaction, and it doesn’t disappear just because someone has dementia.
In fact, this instinct to protect oneself may become even stronger in the face of dementia.
This self-protection instinct comes from the amygdala, a small area deep within your brain. The amygdala continues to send out survival instincts even when other portions of the brain are affected by dementia.
The part of the brain that houses reason and logic—the prefrontal cortex—is often first affected by dementia. It is this part of the brain that allows you to think through a situation and respond appropriately.
When the guy at the grocery store gets too close, your amygdala sends out a threat alert, but your prefrontal cortex uses logic to assess and notices that the store is crowded. You then realize that the guy moved into your personal space because he was bumped from behind. There is no threat after all, and your prefrontal cortex sends a message to the Amygdala that all is safe and secure.
For someone who’s prefrontal cortex is affected by dementia, their ability to assess the situation for danger diminishes. Their amygdala is still sending out the danger warning, but they do not have the ability to use logic or reason to understand the situation and reduce their sense of risk.
Think back to your initial reaction to the guy in the checkout line—your facial reaction and body language were not friendly or welcoming, were they? That’s because you were feeling at risk for just a second. Now think about someone with dementia who may have a concerned or suspicious expression on their face or their body language is reactive. Perhaps they are feeling threatened and they are on high alert.
That person with dementia may not be able to use logic or reason to reassure themselves that there is no threat. If someone is in their personal space, and they feel threatened, they will react exactly like you did—defensively. They will not be able to contextualize and say “oh, that person is wearing scrubs. It must be a doctor or a nurse who is in my personal space to treat me medically.”
They may not recognize a family member, friend, care provider, or fellow resident. If they don’t recognize the person who is entering their personal space, then that person may feel as strange as the guy in the checkout line. If so, the reaction—even to a family member or friend—will be the same defensive reaction as a stranger intruding on space.
What can you do?
When you’re interacting with someone who has dementia, be on the lookout for defensive body language. If you notice a defensive stance or a suspicious facial expression, recognize that the person with dementia may be feeling threatened or at risk and help them to feel reassured.
Be kind, and help them to contextualize. Fill in the missing details that their brain may not be able to supply. Help them to recognize relationships or connections and do not enter their personal space until you are sure they welcome you.
A beloved family member with dementia may not recognize your face, but they will recognize how you make them feel. Focus on helping them to feel safe and reassured, and the defensive behaviour will melt away.
When self-isolating at home, have you found yourself scrolling through random online updates more often than you want to admit? If so, you’ve probably seen articles and posts about parents who are going crazy being cooped up with their children for weeks on end. Both the parents and the children are feeling the strain.
It isn’t just the parents of young children who are feeling the parent-child relationship strain. It can be felt at all ages but is showing up particularly strongly for those who have been thrust into a caregiving role that is more extensive than they anticipated.
Adult children of ageing parents who have dementia or other high-care needs may suddenly find many of their regular support systems removed. The Adult Day Program that your mother attended a few days weekly is now closed; her regular social groups at the church have shut down; even the PSW who usually comes to bathe her has not been coming. Your mother’s schedule is in upheaval and you have become the primary—and only—caregiver.
It can be pretty overwhelming to suddenly find yourself in the full-time position of caring for someone with dementia. While you’re happy to help sometimes on some days, being the only support person day after day is wearing you out and you’re starting to feel the strain.
It is okay to admit that, just like your mother, you’ve experienced a massive upheaval in your schedule and routine, with newly added responsibilities. And though you may be tempted to think “I’m not working at the moment so I should be fully available to care for mom,” providing 24/7 dementia support is more than one full-time job.
Providing care to a loved one with dementia is more than just physically taxing. It can be emotionally exhausting as well. There are certainly very meaningful moments with laughter and joy, but when it is your parent or your spouse whom you’ve known for decades, it will undoubtedly be emotionally exhausting as well.
Just because you are home at the moment and may not be working does not mean that you are equipped to provide 24/7 dementia care. It is okay to acknowledge that sometimes, a professional is required and someone who is not related to your mother may be better able to provide the assistance she needs right now.
Fortunately, caregivers to the elderly are essential and permitted to continue caring for seniors. Here at Warm Embrace, we continue to serve our longstanding clients and we are also equipped to help families who are now finding themselves in need of more care.
It’s almost that time of year again—time to change the clocks!
The springtime change has a hopeful element to it; the days get longer and you have more daylight to enjoy in the evening hours. It almost feels like you can measure the increased daylight every day! It signals that spring is truly on its way.
There is one big challenge first though. That’s the loss of one hour! For most of us, that means the loss of an hour of sleep.
It would seem as though losing one hour of sleep shouldn’t be that detrimental. Surely we can handle one less hour of sleep. And yet, statistics indicate that losing one hour of sleep does impact us, and not for the better. It’s a well-known fact that there is a higher incident rate of automobile collisions on the Monday following the spring time change. Some studies have indicated an increased risk of heart attack too!
If losing one hour of sleep can cause us to drive poorly and increase our risk of heart attack, what does it do for someone with dementia who may not understand what is happening with the time change?
Adjusting to the time change is essentially like dealing with jet lag. While it is only a one-hour difference, it is enough to throw us out of whack for a few days as we slowly adjust. Our bodies are finely tuned mechanisms that follow a very careful circadian rhythm. When that rhythm is interrupted, it takes us a while to get back on track. If that much adjustment is needed for those of us who can cognitively understand the time change, how much more difficult is it for someone with dementia who cannot tell time?
Someone with advanced dementia may not be able to tell time anymore. Some days, it may seem as if they don’t have much routine if they are waking at odd hours and sleeping during the day. But even if their routine has shifted from what it was years ago, they still have an internal sense of the passing of time. Suddenly missing an hour throws off that internal sense, and it can feel disorienting and confusing.
Sleep is critical for brain functioning in all people, and especially so for those with dementia. The brain needs a chance to recover and it is during sleep that memory is encoded. When someone’s brain is impacted by a disease that impairs memory, they may require extra sleep to encode even minimal memory. Sleep is essential, and losing an hour of sleep can have an enormous impact on how someone functions.
As much as possible, try to adjust bedtime and waking time in advance of the time change to make it a more gradual adjustment rather than a one-hour change overnight. On the eve of the time change and the subsequent nights, ensure that your loved one still receives their usual allotment of sleep, even if it means going to bed a bit earlier or getting up a bit later.
When caring for someone with moderate or advanced dementia, just knowing what to expect can make a difference. Recognize that the time change is just like dealing with jet-lag and it will be an adjustment for your loved one. Expect that they may exhibit some unusual behaviour or feel agitated and anxious the week following the time change.
Prepare as much as possible by making the adjustment gradual. And remember, these adjustments will be helpful not only for your loved one but also for you!
Inclusion is a hot topic and a very important one for our elderly population. It emphasizes the importance of inviting the active participation of all citizens, including our elderly population, into our social fabric. Our current social fabric has changed with the pandemic making it difficult for seniors to be active participants. It’s important we protect our elderly population by practicing social distancing and by wearing PPE, but we must also take next steps to protect their wellbeing.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
Studies have found that social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors linked to increased blood pressure, heart disease, diminished immune system, depression, anxiety, and poor cognitive functioning. Social isolation has a profound impact on older adults' health and wellbeing!
The Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA) has reported (before COVID-19) that:
Being socially isolated is a common affliction among older adults. More than 30% of Canadian seniors are at risk of becoming socially isolated.
Isolation and loneliness are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And, social isolation can put seniors at increased risk for elder abuse.
What can you do to help?
1. Welcome your elderly loved one into the online world
Don’t assume your elderly loved one can’t use a smartphone, tablet or computer, instead encourage them by writing out instructions so they can connect online with their friends and loved ones. They will pleasantly surprise you! When they get the hang of it pay attention to their feedback and advocate for technological improvements.
Technology is a powerful tool but it needs improvement to include everyone – not just the abled. It’s time for developers and creators to involve older adults and family caregivers in the creation process. There are millions of apps out there but the majority of them aren’t suited for the elderly. The first step, you can take is leaving reviews on google or the app store.
2. Advocate for an age-friendly community
Being age-friendly means that there are no barriers to accessing services in the community, regardless of age or ability. A city that is designed to include and be accessible for its elderly residents is automatically factoring in the needs of its younger population.
For example, if a community is accessible for someone using a walker or wheelchair, it is also accessible to a parent pushing a stroller. The examples that we think of quickly are usually about physical accommodation such as ramps, wider doorways, longer crosswalk signals, accessible parking etc. You can advocate by attending virtual town halls, writing emails to your local MP, and voting at the next municipal elections.
3. Challenge ageist stereotypes and bias
Dr. John Lewis, professor at the University of Waterloo, points out that currently, one-quarter of Waterloo Region’s population is age 55 plus. That number is only going to increase in the next few decades. It is not acceptable that there are ageist prejudices towards 1/4 of our population! If we want to have a community that is inclusive to all members, it needs to be designed to suit those who are age 55 and older.
Often, these issues relate directly to coping with ageism. Ageism is the stereotyping of and prejudices against someone because of their age. It might include automatically treating someone in a certain way, just because they appear to be a senior.
For example, assuming someone is hard of hearing because they have gray hair is an ageist stereotype. Another example is the way that professionals often speak about a senior to their family members, as though the senior is not even in the room! The conversation should be directed to the relevant person, regardless of age.
Age is just a number. There are stories online of incredible seniors thriving in their 80s and even 90s! For example, Gladys Burrill at the age of 86 completed her first Honolulu Marathon. She was also a world traveller, a licensed pilot, an avid hiker and a prolific gardener. Read stories online and share them on social media to challenge ageism and other stereotypes.
4. Respect and include those with Dementia
In addition to physical challenges, some people experience cognitive changes. These people deserve the same level of respect and inclusion as all other members of society. Brenda Hounam, dementia advocate and spokesperson, highly advises communicating about dementia itself. Rather than hiding her challenges with dementia, she has decided to be very public and make others aware of her disease.
Hounam suggests that people “open the doors for communication—just ask”. She feels that it is much better to ask for clarification and to communicate clearly with someone who has dementia; do not just make assumptions. She asks that people do more than just listen; she wants people to truly hear and validate what she is saying. Hounam’s overarching message is that “we are all unique, and we all have something to contribute until the last breath.”
Being inclusive and respectful of all citizens—regardless of age, ability, or illness—better allows us to fully acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of all members of society.
5. Encourage community and support
Your elderly loved one is socially distancing but they don't have to be socially isolated! Reach out to your loved one regularly by chatting on phone or by setting up a safely distanced date. If you can't visit them in person, try contacting an organization for support. At Warm Embrace Elder Care, there are wonderful caregivers who can safely visit your elderly loved one! Our caregivers wear PPE and encourage proper nutrition, physical exercise and mental stimulation.
During this pandemic, social distancing has become a safety protocol but it shouldn't have to coincide with social isolating. Let's take the necessary steps together to protect our elderly population. If you have questions or comments, write a comment below or contact us!
Family caregiving is an honourable endeavour and can be intensely meaningful and fulfilling. But not all families are the same, and there are situations where family caregiving for an elderly parent or relative may not be suitable. In some situations, attempting to be a family caregiver can actually cause more upset to the overall family than enlisting external help.
Here is a top 5 list of reasons where family caregiving may cause more strife than benefit.
1. Siblings rivalry was never outgrown
Do you still squabble with your siblings as much as you did when you were children? Family caregiving can be challenging in and of itself; add sibling rivalry and the emotional toll just jumped to a whole new level. Siblings who exert more effort competing than cooperating will not likely set their personal issues aside and be completely agreeable over care for mom or dad.
When there are long-standing sibling rivalry issues it often ends up feeling as if you can’t do anything right. No matter which action you take, it is misinterpreted by your siblings. You provide hands-on care, it is criticized; you step back to allow your siblings the opportunity to participate, and you’re labelled as “uninvolved” or “being selfish”. With dynamics like this at play, involved family caregiving likely won’t heal sibling wounds. Rather, there is a great risk that the sibling divide deepens.
In family caregiving, the recipient of care—your elderly parent or grandparent—needs to be the focus. Sibling rivalry can’t continue to be the main issue at hand. Out of fairness to your elderly loved ones, you may want to enlist external support so that long-standing sibling rivalries don’t rear again over family care.
2. Your parent is intensely private or modest
Every family has different comfort levels around privacy and personal care. For someone who was intensely private and modest her entire life, she may find it terribly uncomfortable to have family or friends assist with personal care, such as bathing or toileting. An elderly mother may not wish to have her sons bathing her—and her sons are often even more uncomfortable with personal care than is she!
For these families, the kindest option is to have someone else provide personal care—someone who was not previously known to the elderly mother. This way, she can maintain her dignity and privacy in front of her sons, her daughters-in-law, and her friends. Receiving support from a caregiver whose role it is to provide personal care is exceedingly different than forgoing privacy and modesty in front of family and friends. It is less about gender and more about personal preference and maintaining dignity.
The role reversal between parents and children is a complex issue that is deeply personal.It is challenging enough when adult children are suddenly managing schedules and household needs; crossing into the realm of personal care can exacerbate the role reversal.
3. Personality Clashes
Let’s face it—most families are not like the Brady Bunch. Not everyone gets along, and there are decades of history by the time caregiving for elderly family members arises. The elderly grandfather who suddenly needs assistance does not develop a new personality just because he suddenly requires care. If he was ornery his whole life, it is likely he will be ornery in his senior years too!
If he burned bridges with various family members in the past, it may be unrealistic to expect family members to set aside their grudges and hurt and begin family caregiving for Grandpa. In addition to past hurts that may be resurrected, those same family members are now exposed to a whole new host of potential personal insults. Grandpa is also less likely to be a gracious recipient of care from family members with whom he is accustomed to being ornery. There is a better chance that Grandpa will actually be kinder and more satisfied receiving care from someone outside the family.
It may just be that parent and child have two different personalities or styles that clash in a caregiving situation. Perhaps an elderly father prefers to be very detailed, slow and meticulous, doing things in the particular way that he has always done. His adult daughter—who loves him dearly and is trying so hard to help—is fighting her natural tendency toward efficiency. She wants to accomplish tasks quickly since she is already torn between her demanding career and her own family waiting for her at home.
The father and daughter have different styles and different personality types—something that may have been complimentary at other stages in life. But when it comes to caregiving and ensuring that her father has the quality of life that he prefers at whatever pace is comfortable to him, his daughter would be well-advised to step back and allow a professional caregiver to assist her father in the way he needs.
4. You're just not a caregiver at heart
Truth be told, you’re just not the caregiving type. We can’t all be good at everything; being compassionate, gentle and patient just aren’t your top strengths. There’s a reason you didn’t become a nurse or an activities director at a retirement home. You know your strength, and it isn’t caregiving.
There’s no shame in acknowledging that you’re just not the right person for the job. Your strengths can be utilized in other ways to support your elderly loved one. when it comes to personal care and more intimate needs, you would be wise to enlist the support of someone who is particularly compassionate, gentle and patient for the sake of your elderly loved one. They deserve the best and a trained caregiver can provide what you cannot.
5. You don't live locally
Today’s families are more spread out geographically than ever before. Family members may be time zones apart, and visiting regularly just isn’t possible. When you do visit, you stay for a week at a time and try to get everything mom needs, but you’ve noticed that each time you visit, she needs a little more than last time. You feel bad that she’s on her own between your visits, and you worry about her more and more all the time.
It’s more than just stocking up on groceries and running errands. You want to know that mom has a reliable caregiver to accompany her to appointments since doctor’s appointments cannot always wait until you’re in town. You want the best for your mother. She deserves consistent care that isn’t dependent upon your work schedule. You also want the peace of mind that someone is checking in on your mom, even when you are not in town.
If your family fits into any of these 5 categories, then family caregiving may not be advised. Family caregiving is highly stressful and involved in the best of situations, but if you add any of the above five elements, you may want to enlist some additional care for your ageing loved ones.
It’s okay to admit that your family is better suited to enlisting caregiver support from outside the family. Doing so maybe just the thing your family needs to keep everyone sane and happy!
Learning to be zen and mindful is something that takes incredible focus, dedication and practice. There are entire fields of study dedicated to mindfulness and how beneficial it can be to our overall health. Living in the moment can be your goal for this new year!
People with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can teach us a lot about how to be in this moment, completely and fully.
When you spend time with someone who has dementia, they are present in that moment and they’re acutely aware of their environment around them. They are noticing sights and sounds and temperature variations at that particular moment in time. They may not be able to articulate it entirely, but they are very much present in the moment.
The challenge is usually more for us than it is for them.
We are the ones who have a hard time slowing down. How many details from our immediate environment do we miss completely because we’re totally absorbed thinking about the past or worrying about the future?
When you spend the afternoon with someone who has dementia, they are truly with you for that afternoon. They are not creating a grocery list in their head. They aren’t worrying about what to cook for dinner later. They aren’t wondering if they’ll have enough time to squeeze in an extra errand after the visit. They are present, with you, at that moment.
Sometimes, someone with dementia will jump from one topic to the next and you might think that they weren’t engaged in the conversation if their brain was heading in such a different direction than yours. Remember that the connections between areas of the brain and the way information is stored, retrieved and processed are very much impacted by dementia.
Two different topics that to you seem unrelated, might be connected in an abstract way for someone who has dementia. In their mind, those two topics may be connected and to them, it feels that the conversation is flowing. They aren’t feeling that the conversation is disjointed; they are following the conversation exactly as their brain is permitting at that moment. They are entirely present and engaged; their brain is just taking a different route than your brain.
Sometimes when someone has advanced dementia they may be using the knowledge that they gained early in their life to make sense of their world. They may ask for their parents; they may call you by their sibling’s name. They may reference attending school, or planning for their wedding, or having their first child. Sometimes, people interpret this to mean that someone with dementia is “living in the past.” This isn’t true.
Someone with dementia is living entirely in the moment today—they are as much in the moment as you are. Their brain is just relying on information from decades ago to explain what they are experiencing in this present moment. They recognize that you are a person who is close to them and very much connected to them, and their brain uses that archived knowledge when it assigns the name of their sibling to you.
They are not living in the past; they are engaging with you at this very moment. They are just relying on data from their long-term memory that is no longer reliable. But be aware that they are very much present in the moment and acutely aware of the information they’re absorbing through their five senses.
We can learn a lot from our friends who have dementia. If we can join them, at their pace, to experience the world around them, we can have a very zen moment. We can learn to notice and appreciate small details.
This part of your text helps me understand what may otherwise feel disconnected in a conversation with someone with Alzheimer's. Thank you.
"Their brain is just relying on information from decades ago to explain what they are experiencing in this present moment. They recognize that you are a person who is close to them and very much connected to them, and their brain uses that archived knowledge when it assigns the name of their sibling to you."
January 6, 2021 at 4:25 PM
You are amazing! Could you arrange for lunch with all of you one day?
Your parents recently moved into a retirement home and you were relieved they’d now have three proper meals per day. With your mother’s progressing dementia, she hadn’t been cooking for quite some time.
There's only one problem.
Your mom has been bringing her purse to the dining room where she stashes extra food! She takes it back to their room and hides the food and you’ve been finding it in various states of science-experiment decay!
What is happening?
In the past, this might have been called “hoarding”. But
“hoarding” has a negative connotation and is quite different than what is happening to your mom. A more suitable term might be “collecting”.
Her new behaviour is not unusual and it makes sense when you consider what is happening in her brain.
The drive or instinct to gather is a hard-wired human instinct. Humans have been hunters and gatherers for millennia. We have the instinct to gather food beyond what we immediately need to prepare for future hunger.
In modern society, most of us are blessed enough that we don’t have to worry about our next meal. With 24/7 grocery stores, we have access to food at any time. But for your mother who has dementia, that option is not as viable.
First of all, she likely grew up in an era where stores were not open 24/7. Secondly, she may feel particularly vulnerable that she has no way of accessing food at any given time—she likely cannot drive, she likely wouldn’t know how to get to the closest grocery store, she might not even have access to money to purchase food. Her instinct to gather food that is available actually makes perfectly good sense. She is gathering food because she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.
“But wait!” you say. “She has three full meals daily with access to a coffee bar that has muffins and cookies and fruit—she’s never left hungry. Of course, she knows where her next meal is coming from!”
Your response is perfectly logical. Remember, though, that her brain’s ability to be logical is diminished. If she has dementia, she may not remember yesterday clearly enough to remember that she did, indeed, receive three full meals. She can’t use yesterday’s experience to reassure herself that she will likely receive three meals today.
From her perspective, she is suddenly in this new place that doesn’t yet feel familiar.
There is no kitchen that she can see. She doesn’t recall the delicious dinner she had last night. No wonder she is concerned about where her next meal is coming from! On top of all that, one of the deeper portions of her brain—the Amygdala—continues to send out hunger-gathering instincts for self-preservation.
Instead of considering her behaviour to be "hoarding" and problematic, understand that she is doing her best to provide for herself and meet her most basic human needs.
Does your family have any Thanksgiving traditions? Do you share memories of years past, and do you share what you’re grateful for this year?
If you have family members who have dementia, there are ways to make these traditions more inclusive and enjoyable for them too.
The wonderful thing about stating what you’re thankful for is that the answer can’t be wrong! No matter what you are thankful for, no one else can say that the answer doesn’t count. This is a great conversation starter for someone who has dementia. It does not depend on factual memory, there is no right or wrong answer, and any answer can spark new discussion.
To make it easier for your loved one who has dementia, be sure to provide an example. It can be a lot of pressure to ask them first—“What are you thankful for?” Instead, you can start, and then ask “are you thankful for anything granddad?”
To keep the conversation going, you can encourage reminiscing, but be careful to avoid making grandad feel that he has to justify his answer. Here are some examples that might echo someone’s automatic response, but are not recommended, followed by an example that is more dementia-supportive.
Granddad responds: “I’m thankful for you!” and you respond “and why are you thankful for me?” Your intent is to keep granddad engaged in the conversation, but instead, it may feel like he has to justify his answer. That can add stress and pressure to granddad and he may be less likely to answer any other questions if he has to justify his response.
You can affirm his answer by saying “why thanks Granddad, and I’m thankful for you too! I’m grateful we’re having Thanksgiving dinner together with you tonight.” You have affirmed granddad’s answer and kept your response in the present moment so granddad doesn’t have to rely on recent memory.
If your granddad’s short term memory is highly impacted, he may have clearer memories of his childhood and he may often talk about his childhood. He may state that he’s thankful for his mother or his younger sister, both of whom have long since passed.
“Granddad your mother has been dead for nearly 30 years. Surely you have something to be grateful for today.” This response tells granddad that his answer is wrong, and it shuts down further conversation. It eliminates the opportunity for reminiscing and revealing his state of mind or thought process. It may also rip open the wound of grief if granddad has briefly forgotten that his mother is deceased and he may grieve her as though it is a new loss.
“oh yes Granddad, your mother was a very special woman. Do you have a favourite memory of her?” This response validates Granddad’s answer and opens up the opportunity for more conversation. The follow-up question is completely open-ended—he can say “no” he doesn’t have a favourite memory and that’s okay. If he is reminiscing and can remember something special, he is free to share. You might be amazed where the walk down memory lane can lead!
When encouraging someone to reminisce, aim to keep your follow up questions open-ended or opinion-based. If you ask fact-based questions it can feel like a test with an inferred right or wrong answer.
A fact-based question might be: “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Do you remember what type of pie she baked?” There is an inferred right or wrong answer and it feels like a test.
Instead, ask opinion questions that cannot be right or wrong. “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Did you have a favourite flavour of pie?”
If Granddad responds “I liked mother’s strawberry pie at thanksgiving” and you know that his mother did not make a strawberry pie, do not correct him! It is NOT helpful to say “oh granddad, that can’t be right. Your mother only ever used fresh fruit from the farm. She made strawberry pies in June with fresh strawberries from the field. At Thanksgiving, it had to be apple or pumpkin.”
Your response may be factually correct, but does it really matter? How does it make granddad feel to be corrected? It tells him that his answers are incorrect and will likely shut down further conversation. Is the purpose of the conversation to exchange correct facts, or is the purpose to help granddad reminisce and share positive memories in a loving environment?
“Your mother’s strawberry pies certainly were delicious! Wasn’t there a time when you were a little boy and you stole the pie out of the window where your mother left it cooling?” You validated your grandfather’s response about strawberry pies without correcting his response. To keep the conversation going, you’ve supplied more information to possibly spark his memory.
This is a story you’ve heard him tell many times before, and each time his face lights up with a mischievous grin—just like he’s 9 years old all over again! You’re giving him the gift of remembering a story that he loves to tell, and instead of testing his memory, you spark his memory and let him tell the details of the story as he remembers it. If his details differ from the last time he told the story, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is the star of the moment, telling his story the way he remembers it.
When you're together with family this Thanksgiving, and you have the opportunity to reminisce with family members who may have dementia, aim to provide supportive responses that keep the conversation going.
Remember that the purpose of the conversation is not to exchange factually correct information. The purpose is to share quality time with loved ones, validate their feelings, and share a moment of open love and trust. You may just be amazed at the memories that surface!
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what does the photo selection on our walls say about us? When you look around your home, what photos do you have prominently displayed?
Photos are one of the ways to personalize your living space, be reminded of your closest friends and family, or commemorate a favourite event. What if the photos on your wall no longer triggered happy memories? What if you didn’t recognize the people or places in the photos on your walls? How would you feel?
If you didn’t recognize any of the photos, you might feel like you’re out of place, that it can’t possibly be your home. You might feel disconnected, or perhaps even a little lost. You might wish to go home, to a place that’s familiar and recognizable.
That is exactly how someone with advanced dementia can feel. For some people with dementia, they will have a tough time recognizing photos of family members or even photos of themselves. In the early stages of dementia, it can be helpful to have recent photos of grandchildren available so they are more recognizable when they visit, especially because they grow up and change so quickly. But as someone’s dementia advances, keeping up with updated photos can be challenging.
For someone with advanced dementia, it can be quite abstract to look at a photo of a baby or a child and connect to that person as being your great-grandchild. Having recent photos of the latest great-grandchildren may not provide an anchor-point for identity. It may just be a nice photo of a cute baby, but no greater connection than that. In fact, I’ve had clients with advanced dementia tell me that the cute baby photo—which is indeed their newest great-grandchild—is just the sample photo that came with the picture frame and since they liked the photo, they never changed it out!
Photos of unrecognizable family members may be pretty photos, but if someone with advanced dementia does not realize it’s a family member, then the photo does not have much significance. It does not signal “you are home” or “you belong here”. It does not spark memories of happy times, it doesn’t connect to a sense of identity.
Instead, it can be helpful to understand what and who your loved one is thinking about most these days. Oftentimes, people with advanced dementia are thinking and talking about times that they can more clearly remember and understand. Since long-term memory is stronger, people often revert back to childhood or young adulthood memories. If that is the timeframe that is clearest, then provide photos to match the era that your loved one can remember.
If your loved one is talking about their parents, see if you can unearth an old photograph of their parents from decades ago—a photo of what their parents would have looked like when they were a child or teen. If your loved one is talking about their siblings, find old photos of the siblings together as children. You may have a recent photo from the latest family reunion, but if your father is remembering his brother as an 8-year-old child, he may not be connecting with the photo of the 87-year-old man who is his brother today.
Many elderly women have strong memories of having children. Their strongest memories are of their children as babies, toddlers or young children. Finding the old baby photos that might have adorned the walls over 60 years ago can be helpful. The photos will be familiar and will likely spark a smile and perhaps even some fond memories.
Another option, though much tougher to implement, is to adorn the walls with photos, pictures, or wall hangings that were in your loved one’s childhood home, or even their first home when they moved out. Of course, many of those photos and prints may be long gone, but if you can find anything stashed away in the attic, it may be worth bringing them out to see what reaction you get.
For someone with advanced dementia, adjust their environment to match their internal reality. Have photos to match their strongest memories. Select pieces that bring comfort or joy and spark a memory.
Whether modifying someone's home or decorating their new living space in a retirement home or long term care centre, provide photos that spark a sense of pride and identity for your loved one.
Humans are wired to be busy, to be productive, to be doing something. Even when we are intentionally taking a break, we have to consciously remind ourselves to relax and not default to our busy-mode.
This drive and desire to be productive is deeply ingrained, and for people who have heeded the productivity call their entire lives, it is a well-worn feedback loop. They feel the need to be productive, so they remain constantly busy, and the fruits of their labour are the visible reward for being constantly busy.
What happens when dementia interrupts that feedback loop?
When someone’s dementia has progressed, he has a harder time remembering how to do activities he did his entire life. George, a gentleman who enjoyed woodworking and fixing things around the house may no longer understand how to use his tools. He gets started on a task, and partway through forgets what he was doing, leaving a wake of unfinished projects behind him.
His desire to continually work on things around the house does not go away. His drive for productivity and doing something meaningful and important will far outlast his ability to operate his tools. George was never one to sit and relax, instead, he was always working away on something, and that desire can carry on even as his dementia progresses.
The fact that George can no longer successfully fix broken household items will not prevent him from trying to do so. In fact, he may be inclined to ‘fix’ items that he is certain are ‘broken’ because he’s now having trouble operating household appliances. Frustrated relatives might try to insist “just sit down and relax!” but since that was never in George’s nature, it’s unlikely he’ll be settled for long. George’s brain is sending him the signal to be productive. He has a strong sense that he should be doing something, he’s just not sure what that something is.
When George cannot easily find a task that meets his need to be productive, he will create one. Dementia has interfered with his ability to follow through with all the tasks he previously did. If the signals in his brain are scrambled, the output of his activities may also be scrambled. He is trying his best to ‘fix’ the ‘broken’ wastebasket and has dumped its entire contents on the floor. To an exhausted family member, this is just one more dementia behaviour that doesn’t make any sense and has now created a mess to be cleaned up.
What George needs are activities that he can manage. Dementia has impacted his ability to do the same activities in the same way he did them 20 years ago, but it has not taken away his ability to do all activities. What George needs is someone who can customize familiar activities to match his current ability level. He needs someone else to break down an activity into individual tasks, and do only one small task at a time. George is still capable of doing many things. He needs direction and he needs cueing to successfully manage a sequence of complex activities.
George is bored. And when he is bored, his brain will create an activity to do. Even if the activity doesn’t make sense to someone else’s brain, even if the activity creates a mess or breaks something, or causes a disturbance, his brain is desperate for activity and stimulation. In the lack of meaningful stimulation, the brain will create its own entertainment.
The underlying cause of many so-called dementia behaviours is boredom.
When someone with dementia is occupied with meaningful activities that create a sense of purpose and productivity, their ‘behaviours’ are often drastically reduced. Their need to be productive is met and they feel satisfied.
Providing meaningful activities for someone with dementia is one of the most effective ways to reduce undesired behaviours. It does not require medication changes and has no side effects. However, it can be incredibly time-consuming and does require an enormous amount of patience. Time and patience are two things that family caregivers often have in short supply—they’ve used up both!
Professional caregivers can fill the gap. Professional caregivers can take the abundant time and patience required to keep people like George engaged in meaningful activities. Caregivers help clients with dementia to connect to their passions and interests by making activities accessible. Caregivers modify activities to match their client’s ability level—that might be fluctuating by the day or by the hour—to ensure that activities are never too difficult or too easy and boring.
When people are enjoying hobbies that they love, and they are not frustrated or bored, their so-called behaviours are drastically reduced. What passions might we re-inspire in your loved one, to spark their desire for meaningful engagement and productivity?