How Do You Connect?

August 6, 2011

As dementia progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to connect with our loved ones. I often get questions about this from caregivers, friends and family alike. As time goes on, this inability to connect causes family and friends to visit less frequently, leaving the person with dementia and the caregiver socially isolated at a time when they need the most support.

How can you connect with a person with dementia? Often, the creative arts are the key. Don’t stop reading! You don’t have to be an artist, musician or have any type talent at all to employ these therapies! They’re very simple and easy to use.

Music: People with dementia usually remember things from the distant past, so choose your songs accordingly. What music did the person listen to in their late teens and twenties? If you don’t know, google “top forty songs” and put in the year when the person would have been 18 or 20 years old. You will get a list of what was popular at the time. Play and sing along with these songs, and you may be amazed at what happens. If nothing happens, keep trying! This process takes time. Additionally, if the person is religious or was in their childhood, try singing and playing the hymns of their youth. At a point when my father-in-law with Alzheimer’s disease had not spoken in several months and was in an in-patient hospice unit, we began singing familiar hymns. Amazingly, he could sing along! This is a relatively common experience. There is an excellent video from available on Youtube, Gladys Wilson and Naomi Feil , that gives an example of this. Music can help bridge the communication gap with people in any stage of dementia.

Art: Lester Potts, a rural Alabama sawmiller, was the quintessential child of the Great Depression: he was all about work. He would have considered painting pictures (for himself) wasted time. As Alzheimer’s disease stole more and more of his cognitive ability, he began attending a dementia daycare center where a retired artist volunteered his time. The results were astounding. At a point when he could no longer hammer a nail or change a light bulb, he became a watercolor artist, although he had never painted before. Even in late stage Alzheimer’s disease when he had lost the ability to speak, he could paint visual images of his childhood. (To see a short documentary film, go to Painting in Twilight, An Artist\’s Escape from Alzheimer\’s Disease). To do this at home, start with some very simple artist’s supplies, not children’s crayons and coloring books. You can buy the “Paint by Number” kits or just let the person paint whatever she wants.

Dance: I heard a story a few days ago about a woman who had been a dancer in her youth, but now had dementia. She lived in a facility and used to twirl down the halls. Most of us danced in our youth, either at school dances or as part of a hobby. If your loved one is still able to walk, play music from their heyday and dance! If the person is not able to walk, the “dancing” does not have to involve their legs. Let them move their arms to the music or take their hands in yours and pretend to dance.

Bibliotherapy: This is a fancy word for an easy concept — reading familiar things. Think of the poetry or the stories the person might have memorized or read in their youth. If the person was religious, think about familiar scriptures. Make certain to read the passages from the version the person would have read in their youth, not a more modern version.

Expressive arts therapies have been clinically proven to improve mood and behavior apart from medication, and they have no known negative side effects. Even in the mainstream medical community, the value of these therapies is being touted. (The upcoming medical textbook, Geriatric Neurology, to be published later this year by Prentice Hall has an entire chapter on the benefits of expressive arts therapies.) More importantly, the expressive arts offer caregivers, family and friends alike the ability to connect with people who often are considered to be beyond our ability to reach them. Remember, the goal is not the quality of the product or the performance, but connecting with your loved one in ways that are not possible otherwise. If you are diligent in using these techniques, amazing things can happen.

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One Response to “How Do You Connect?”

  1. J. Berry says:

    I would really encourage people to keep visiting their loved ones with Alzheimers regardless of feeling “she/he doesn’t know us anymore, so we don’t go as often” a comment I’ve heard many times. Mum was in nursing home 9 yrs & as a childless woman I was able to visit her daily (after work, to feed her eve meal, toilet, wash & put her to bed). I spent most wkends with her. I ABSOLUTELY know this is NOT possible for most, due to children & family commitments. Mum would become excited on my arrival, more animated. Staff would say that’s the 1st smile we’ve seen today. I would sometimes observe her for few mins before she saw me & feel saddened by how lifeless she looked. Staff had little time or inclination for stimulation, conversation or hugs (love!). I don’t know if towards the end Mum knew I was her ‘daughter’ (although on the rare occasions she spoke she would say ‘you naughty girl’ or ‘you be careful’ – things she said to me before the Alzheimers!) but without doubt she knew me as someone ‘very’ familiar, who was kind to her, paid her attention and made her feel very safe and very loved. I made it my mission to make her smile or even better laugh each day. I took time to feed her (no rushing before moving on to the next client). I washed her tenderly & spoke to her always (I observed staff feeding & washing residents hands & faces, or moving them from chair to wheelchair etc without speaking a word). My point is (sorry I’ve rambled) your visits are so important. You are important to them even if they call you by the wrong name or mistake you for their brother instead of their son (because you probably resemble them). Of course they will forget you if you visit less! One is a result of the other. Their short-term memory is going! Give them a few mins when you visit, to get used to your voice & face again. On bad days Mum looked blankly at me & I’d hug her & talk to her about my day & eventually I would see a small light go on & I would get a lovely smile, a loving look or best of all puckered lips wanting a kiss. Paid carers are paid to feed, toilet & put to bed – not to love them, hug them, kiss them, stroke their hair, sing to them (although I experienced a handful of carers / angels, who did love their residents & whenever they left for pastures new my heart would break a little bit). Your visits are so worthwhile even if you can’t see it. Persevere. I know visits can be a little boring if your loved ones no longer speak (hey who needs words to show love) or they may doze off a lot (take a book to read) but your closeness to them is everything. As their world becomes smaller they no longer want visits to restaurants or to the park etc, they just want the small but important things like a warm hug or someone holding their hand, chatting to them about anything! It’s a scary and confusing world inside their head and your smiling faces & warm touch must never be underestimated. They forget a lot of things but they sure as hell continue to understand what love is because love comes from their heart not their head – so, no brain cells required 😉

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