We need more thoughtfulness in caregiving
We can judge a society by how it treats the weakest of its members. As the number of seniors with dementia rises rapidly, each of us should reflect on how we treat people disabled by Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. After all, they are our friends, family members and neighbors. Even when they cannot function as they used to do, every one of them deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect for their dignity as human persons, whether or not they are able to return the favor.
This topic is on my mind because I recently attended a dinner party where a man with dementia tried to join in the conversation, but the host loudly talked over him, as if he were not there.
This kind of callousness is not rare. Talk to anyone whose spouse has dementia and he or she will tell you which lifelong friends suddenly dropped out of sight when the symptoms of memory loss became apparent. Look in some long term care facilities and you’ll find too many residents who are sitting blankly, without anyone offering a smile, or friendly conversation, or activity to engage them. Probably friends or caregivers don’t set out to be cruel when they stop interacting with someone who has dementia, but ignoring that person is dehumanizing.
The bottom line is that we must reach out to engage people with dementia because they need this as much as they need food, water and shelter.
I’m not talking about anything super fancy. It’s more a matter of thoughtfulness. I recently watched a caregiver sit down with a resident whose dementia made communication impossible, but who had been a dedicated gardener. Together they looked at the pictures of gardens in a book and the resident became animated, especially by the picture of sunflowers. She was happy and engaged.
Another man, an accomplished musician, kept trying to hum tunes from musicals, but could not remember the words. A friend downloaded the music from the movie “Showboat” and popped the headphones on so he could listen. His whole face radiated joy.
The really great caregivers don’t waste time focusing on what the person cannot do anymore. Instead they figure out what the person will respond to and enjoy. They work with that. These thoughtful caregivers are the ones who smile at the residents who don’t smile back, who communicate with a gentle touch, who chat cheerfully even when the conversation makes no sense. They are fully present to other people, whether those people are cognitively intact or not.
Good caregivers want to know who a resident was before the dementia took away his or her memories. Then they know what to provide – quilts for a former quilter, bolts and rulers for a carpenter – so that a confused person can be reassured by something familiar.
If you know someone with dementia, I hope you will hang in there with them. A smile, a visit – it doesn’t take much to do the right thing. If you are a caregiver struggling to care for a resident with dementia, learning some new skills to keep your interactions positive is a great idea. Johns Hopkins is starting a new, free online course on October 14. You can register at https://www.coursera.org/#course/dementiacare.
Long Term Care Ombudsman Office on the web
Visit http://www.akoltco.org to find out more about how the Ombudsman protects the rights of seniors. The public can also submit complaints online via the website.
If you have a complaint or question, or would like information about becoming a volunteer ombudsman, call the Long Term Care Ombudsman office at 334-4480 in Anchorage or toll-free statewide at (800) 730-6393.