I remember the husband of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease exclaiming, in no uncertain terms, “I think Alzheimer’s disease is worse than death!” And yet, Peg, his wife, who was in her early 70’s, was still a lovely person with a great big heart. How she loved to sing. We could always make her smile with a verse of “Peg ‘O my Heart. She and I shared a love for Broadway musicals. We sang (and danced down the hallway together) to many a show tune. I was amazed that she still knew the words to even wordier numbers like “Getting to Know You” from The King and I.
Of course, she had down times when she was feeling very blue indeed, and nothing seemed to make sense in her head. But she wasn’t like that most of the time. There was so much in her that could still be reached, tapped, enjoyed, shared and celebrated. I felt sad for her husband, who rarely seemed to laugh with his wife anymore. To his credit, he dutifully walked her around the assisted living building (even up and down stairs) several times a week. Yes, her muscles were that strong…another strength to check off for Peg!
I am intentionally trying to talk more about the strengths people with dementia retain whenever I train or present on dementia topics. If more people could start looking at dementia as a disability to be reckoned with, supported and managed, from Day One, I am convinced they and their care partners will do much better (even as dementia progresses) than folks who basically get told to “go home and get your affairs in order.” Shame on any doctor whose first message to the person they have just diagnosed sounds an awfully lot like “Time to crawl in a hole and die”. Unfortunately, many people with dementia have received that very message and have taken it to heart. Then what happens? They give up. They isolate themselves. Their spouses and partners sometimes do the same. Two persons’ remaining lives are irreparably changed for the worse, and the dementia journey is consistently painful for them both.
I do not mean to say that the dementia journey will be a picnic, if only we put on our rose-colored glasses.
I know that dementia can be challenging. There are types of dementia that may cause delusions or hallucinations that are scary or traumatic for the person. Behaviors that are out of character can be heartbreaking for the person’s family to deal with. And yet, I have seen how caring, supportive relationships can still be built and maintained even with people whose personalities have altered drastically. Humor, common humanity and joy can still be found. Just because people aren’t talking as much or as well as they used to doesn’t mean they are not wise, or full of feeling, or that they have lost their need to be seen, to feel recognized, and to give and receive love.
Last week I was privileged to witness the change on a resident’s face when a ukulele was put into his arms. This gentleman had played guitar in a band for many years. He had an old guitar in his room, but the man had grown too frail to hold onto it effectively. At first, as the ukulele was offered, he was saying “No no no, I can’t” but then, as he realized he actually could manage this smaller instrument, he relaxed. He held on, strummed….and grinned, so very sweetly.
Since I found out about the Dementia Action Alliance, I have feared dementia much less. Check out www.daanow.org for a bundle of inspiring resources and blogs.
So, how about we see if strengths can win over fears.
Let’s focus on strengths that persons with dementia have. Let’s feed them and use them to best advantage. Let’s adapt activities so that those strengths can be more easily accessed.
Here’s a partial list of strengths that persons with dementia I’ve known have retained. Each person will of course exhibit a different combination of strengths. Some listed here may not apply at all to your loved one. But some of them might.
See what you think…and then see what you can do to remind the person of these strengths. What can you put in their hands, read to them, say to them, where can you take them or what can you show them or otherwise offer to stir each particular strength up?
- Sense of humor
- Long-term memory
- Sensitivity to others’ moods and feelings
- Sense of social graces
- Interest in other people
- Ability to give and receive love
- Appreciation of music
- Appreciation of flowers
- Appreciation of friendship
- Need to give and receive love
- Strong faith
- Strong sense of spirituality
- Appreciation of nature
- Appreciation of pets
- Appreciation of children and babies
Ebenezer Dimensions Program Coordinator