If you are a caregiver, don’t do it alone
Most caregivers lose their emotional connection to the patient with Alzheimer’s disease sooner than other individuals in the patient’s life because they stop being a husband, son, grandson, etc. They begin looking at their loved ones as patients more than as their wife, mom, or grandmother. “Find other friends, family, and paid help so you can have some time just being emotionally connected, rather than having a ‘clinical’ relationship,” says FitzPatrick. If you are a full-time caregiver, and for whatever reason cannot seek outside help, be sure to schedule some time away so you can refresh your mind, fortify your patience, and get some space. “As with any long-term illness, you will be grieving the loss of your loved one far before they die, so it’s important to take measures to look after your own well-being—with therapy, meditation, time with other friends, or getting a professional to clean your house—so you can be open and available to emotionally connect with your Alzheimer’s patient,” says Dr. Holbrook. These tips can help you avoid caregiver burnout.
Focus on feelings, not facts
If a person adoringly says, “I have seven grandchildren,” focus on the blessings, not the fact that, in reality, they may only have four. This keeps you from being “that mean daughter who is always correcting me,” says Pamela Atwood, director of Dementia Care Services at Hebrew HealthCare in West Hartford, Connecticut. “If the person says, ‘I’m worried that Buddy isn’t home from school yet,’ provide reassurance that Buddy is safe—even though you know Buddy is 53 and at work.” One of the quickest ways to lose an emotional connection with your loved one who has dementia is by putting them in their place—even politely. “If your loved one believes it’s snowing outside, even in mid-July, it’s not worth correcting her, as she’s only going to feel bad that you are arguing with her and she likely won’t believe you anyways,” FitzPatrick says. What you can do instead is give lots of genuine compliments. “Compliments combat reduced self-worth and self esteem, and make you feel good, too,” says Atwood. Here’s what caregivers can expect from the 7 stages of Alzheimer’s disease progression.
Incorporate the arts into your interactions
Studies show that using the arts can bypass certain effects of Alzheimer’s, enhance communication and emotional connection, as well as create new pathways in the brain with which to access memories. “Music, in particular, is very calming and can lift the spirit of a person with Alzheimer’s,” says Yuval Malinsky, CEO at Vigorous Mind, Inc., an organization that helps dementia patients communicate with their family and friends. “Play him or her music or musicals that you know makes them happy or evokes positive feelings and memories.” And don’t hesitate to sing along—even if it feels silly. It often surprises family and friends that the patient with Alzheimer’s or dementia may still be able to sing even if she can’t talk. “When the activities you previously enjoyed together become increasingly difficult, you may have to adapt the activity or explore new ones,” says Holbrook. The person with dementia is becoming more reliant on experience rather than words for connection—and touch is very effective. As certain activities become less available, simply replace them with new ones. Listening to music together, going to the movie theater, or exploring the community garden are great lower-key activities that can have you chatting without relying on past experiences to keep the conversation rolling.