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Monday, October 25, 2010

Seven Ways to Still Connect and Communicate as Alzheimer’s Advances

Judith L. London, PhD

Our guest blogger is Judith L. London, PhD, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with specialties in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, addiction, stress management, and biofeedback. Dr. London obtained her PhD from New York University. For 16 years, she worked with people in long-term health care settings, many of whom suffered from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. She is the author of Connecting the Dots: Breakthroughs in Communication as Alzheimer’s Advances.

Alzheimer’s is in the news!  Dedicated public figures such as Maria Shriver are leading us to see the huge toll it takes on families, especially women, and to recognize the symptoms and losses inherent in this dreaded disease of the brain.

However, it is interesting to me that rarely do we hear about how to improve the quality of life of those who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s.  Rarely do we hear about how to keep meaningful relationships alive with those five million plus Alzheimer’s sufferers.

elderly couple

iStockphoto

As Alzheimer’s advances, all too often well-meaning relatives and friends are convinced that a loved one no longer can relate in a meaningful way. Damage to brain cells increases in Alzheimer’s to affect communication.  Those with the disease struggle to express themselves, and their caregivers struggle to understand them.

However, as a psychologist for over 21 years who has treated people with Alzheimer’s, I discovered that emotions and ideas do exist throughout the course of this disease.  Relatives, friends and caregivers can break through the barrier to make sense of what their loved one says.

The key is we have to be the one to initiate connecting and communicating.  We have to be the ones to connect the meaning behind the fragments of ideas. We are the only ones who can jump-start the process. Our attitude makes the difference.

Just because loved ones with Alzheimer’s no longer can communicate in their old way doesn’t mean that they have nothing to say.

Here are seven ways that work:

1. Believe that it is possible to relate meaningfully.

2. Smile. Let the love we feel show on our faces.

3. Treat our loved ones as we would want to be treated: with kindness and respect.

4. Use patience and listen to whatever our loved one says: it’s his way of telling us what matters.

5. Have empathy: imagine and feel what is going on inside his mind and heart.

6. Connect the dots from the words he uses and the feelings we perceive.

7. Communicate our understanding by telling him what we think he means.

We may be surprised at the results.  He’ll correct us if we if we are wrong, or agree if we are right.  We will connect, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind.

We have to focus on the richness that remains, not the functions that are lost.  Our loved one will never be exactly who he was, but we can experience him as he still is: a valuable human being who needs our help to relate and find his voice. This affirms dignity and self-respect.

We do not have to accept someone as “gone,” when he is very much alive.  When we reach out, we’ll establish a connection and communicate with our loved one, and he will communicate back with us.

There is hope.

Are you caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s Disease? Share your journey with others in the Alzheimer’s Community.

Posted by: WebMD Blogs at 9:00 am