Celebrating the holidays with a demented parent is sometimes just plain sad. It was maybe three Thanksgivings ago when I first realized my mom had no idea what we were doing or why. All she wanted to do was eat and watch her TV show… Wheel of Fortune. I was so hurt and annoyed that I couldn’t get her to shut off that damn television set. My dad sat in silence and I sat there lost in my head wishing for the perfect family celebrating the perfect Thanksgiving. Still, at the end of the day, my mom enjoyed herself, clapping whenever a contestant (she wants everyone to leave a winner) solved a puzzle.
Ah, so what’s the point of my very depressing intro: An article appeared on CNN.com about this very issue—coping with a demented relative during the holidays. Remember, while this is supposed to be a joyous time of year, and it most definitely can be, it may be stressful on your parent too… new faces, travel, and a change of routine can be incredibly scary and confusing. That said, I thought I would share this piece with you since it may not only help you out this holiday season, but also any out-of-town relatives who may not know how to interact with someone suffering from dementia.
What if the person who has Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t remember who I am?
Well-meaning friends and family often pepper the patient with the question: “Do you know who I am?”
“That’s obnoxious — you want to avoid that,” said Beth Kallmyer, director of client services at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Rather than quizzing someone’s memory, she recommends introducing yourself with something like, “I’m John, your son” and other relatives by saying, “Here’s my wife, Jane.” Be reassuring, hold their hands, and smile and remind them who you are.
Rather than trying to figure out what the person remembers, reassure them by calling them by their name, Kallmyer said.
The loved one no longer recognizes me. What do I do?
After realizing that the person no longer recognizes his or her loved ones, some visitors are at a loss for words or feel apprehensive. Eric Hall, the president and CEO of Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, recommends having a conversation, even if that person seems unresponsive.
“We become uncomfortable doing all the talking,” he said.”Continuing to talk to them is an important piece. It’s awkward for us, but if we stay engaged, it means a lot to them.”
Although the patient may not have memory, he or she still has emotions and the ability to pick up vibes and read body language. Use the person’s name, maintain eye contact and speak slowly, Hall suggested. Ask one open-ended question at a time, giving adequate time to respond.
He calls it the 4S’s for communicating: simple, slow, show and smile.
“Simple sentences are much appreciated by someone with Alzheimer’s,” Hall said. “Say it slow to allow enough time to capture words or questions. Show what you’re saying, using facial expressions, body language and gesturing. And smile — it goes a long way.”
What should I do if he or she keeps asking me the same question?
This is common for people with Alzheimer’s, Hall said.
“The problem is that they cannot remember your response. Instead of answering the question a second or third time, reassure the individual that everything is fine,” he said.
The patient may not be able to remember or process the answer, so they repeat the same question almost 20 to 40 times a day.
“Our first instinct is to answer the question,” Hall said. “We’re under the assumption that the other person gets it. But in this regard, it’s not happening. Instead of becoming frustrated, smile and give an assurance everything is fine and sort of move on.”
What are some habits to avoid?
One misconception is that amplifying their voice will somehow make it easier for the patient to understand.
“People talk loud, they just assume they have a hearing problem,” Kallmyer said. “It’s obviously annoying. They can hear OK. You don’t need to scream at them. You don’t want to patronize them. The biggest thing I can say is slow it down and give them time to answer.”
If a conversation topic seems to confuse the person, move on to a different subject. If the person with Alzheimer’s says something that’s incorrect, resist the urge to correct them.
“When you’re correcting someone, it agitates them,” Kallmyer said. “It’s our nature, you want to correct someone when they’ve got something wrong, but it doesn’t matter.