He Has Alzheimer's, Now What? Pt. 1

A Twitter follower of mine, @Jason_Bournesm, tweeted me a question the other day about his grandfather who has Alzheimer's disease:

teen grandson and grandpa

"@AmyGoyer my grandfather has #Alzheimers. how can I help him? I'm not able to do much physically. He doesn't remember much at all #sad"

Jason was born with spina bifida. While his physical challenges may limit some activities, I told him he has a lot to offer his grandfather! Grandchildren of all ages have a special love and energy to share.

In a two-part post, I'm sharing some of the ideas I shared with Jason. Keep in mind there are many stages of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, and all of these approaches should be adapted according to the capabilities of your loved one. Here are the first four:

  1. Trust your instincts. Interacting with family members who have dementia requires tapping into your intuition. They may not be able to communicate what they like or want to do. Put yourself in their mind-set. Take a step back and observe their reactions. What brings a smile? Is humor useful, or do they need a low-key calm atmosphere? If they are agitated or upset, consider what may be causing the behaviors - are they sick? Uncomfortable? Frustrated? Bored?
  2. Get creative.  Think about adapting the activities they used to enjoy. Maybe they can't follow multistep directions, but breaking things down makes them doable. Sometimes simple daily household tasks provide a feeling of competence and success.
  3. Be there. Jason said he had been told that his presence was in and of itself a good thing. I absolutely agree; companionship and a loving presence are both meaningful and practical gifts. Many with dementia are isolated. Too often, friends and loved ones stay away because they selfishly feel that it's "too hard" to be around someone who has changed so much. It is difficult and sad, as Jason said -  no doubt. But should they suffer more because it's hard for you? What about them? Take your focus off of the past and yourself. Here is your mantra: Be here now. And know that your warm touch does make a difference in ways you can't always see. A hug, a hand or neck massage, simply holding hands can work wonders.
  4. Use music therapeutically. As a music therapist, music is my favorite tool for working with those with dementia. Music therapy uses music to address nonmusical goals. In other words, making beautiful music isn't your goal; bringing joy, movement, socialization etc. to your loved one is the goal. It's amazing how a well-loved song or genre of music can facilitate happiness and human connection even as memories and cognitive abilities fade. Try different types of music to see what lights your loved one up. Try music that was popular during their teens and twenties or that taps into childhood favorites - perhaps nursery rhymes, hymns or cultural family tunes. These are hard-wired into a part of the brain that fades last. Bring CDs, old records or load an iPod with their favorite tunes. Even singing "Happy Birthday" can bring a laugh and sense of success among the generations.
Stay tuned for my follow-up post with more ways to connect with your family members who suffer from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and Facebook.

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