Still There – Mental Health Minute

By: Lisa Philippart
“It may seem pointless, but you should always talk to us—we’re still in there.” (Harry Urban, someone who has lived with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis for 7 years)

In my last article, we discussed the most recent statistics and facts concerning the reality of Alzheimer’s disease, and recognition of November as National Alzheimer’s Awareness month. Today, I would like to share with you the more personal and emotional aspects of Alzheimer’s, from my perspective as a mental health clinician, having worked in nursing homes for over 8 years.

1. Be educated about the disease. The more you know about Alzheimer’s, the more you can understand and empathize with your loved one.

2. Develop routines and schedules. While most of us do better with agendas anyway, those with Alzheimer’s will appreciate knowing what happens when and where. Writing out a calendar of activities weekly can reduce confusion and frustration.

3. Don’t argue or criticize! This is a big one. The person with Alzheimer’s will become upset, and you will become frustrated. Please be willing to let most things go. “Join the journey.”

4. Non-verbals are now truly important. Do not be condescending or express heightened emotion. I am asking you to stop treating your loved one like a child! It is embarrassing for both of you. Use a calm voice and warm tone. Keep eye contact and smile. This can help your loved one stay at ease and know that you are someone familiar, even if she doesn’t recognize or remember exactly who you are. It always made me sad when someone with Alzheimer’s wanted me to be their daughter, simply because I was nice to her.

5. Use names and relationships in conversations. “Hi Mom, it’s your daughter, Lisa. I’ve missed you.” Your loved one won’t have to struggle to remember who she is or who you are. This helps to create a comfortable atmosphere and allows your loved one to focus all their mental energy on the conversation.

6. Meet your loved one in the now. Please don’t try to change your loved one back into the person they used to be. It’s okay to grieve the loss of the one you knew, and then love who she is right now.

7. Don’t assume that mental challenges translate into physical challenges. As tempting as it might be to do everything for your loved one, it is important for her to do as many things as possible by and for herself. You may either need to ask if help is needed or start the activity.

8. Use every method of communication. Experiment to determine effective ways to connect with your loved one…art, music, singing, and reading may open that door to who she once was. Even a simple touch on the arm can help communicate that she is loved.

9. We all remember emotions. Your loved one will remember how she felt even after she forgets the actual event. So, your words and actions matter!

10. And lastly, it can be hard to watch a loved one change before your eyes. Remember that she is not changing, but the disease is progressing. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, it is devastating to the loved one as well as the family members and friends. Hold on to who you know she was before the diagnosis, and take advantage of the time you have together.
By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor