It is not easy to learn to speak Alzheimer’s.
Often times, we wonder if what we just communicated is getting through to a person who does not answer, or is slow to communicate. As the disease progresses, it often causes our loved ones to lose more and more verbal communication. But decline in verbal communication is different than loss of communication entirely. Grow closer to your loved one or those you care for, learn from their eyes and their non-verbal clues, and watch as human emotion and the patience of love can overcome even the most trying of diseases.
Each resident that I have cared for is different. Many times, I’ve wondered whether they even hear what I say. Sometimes, it seems as though speaking more slowly or simply can help. One of the greatest joys I’ve ever had was in forming an open line of communication with an Alzheimer’s patient by taking the time to learn how she best received my information.
The woman with whom I had an “aha” moment, I had only seen from a distance as she stayed up late at night. I was watching her from a distance as she was watching the staff finish their evening duties, and I overwhelmingly wondered what she was thinking as she sat so intently. So I moved close to her, and began by holding her hand.
I casually grabbed a travel magazine and asked if she would care to look with me. She nodded, and I began to show her pictures. She smiled. Then slowly she told me, in four or five word sentences, that she had once been to Rome and she loves it there. We laughed, and I shared I had also spent time there. A church picture caught her eye, and she shared she loved reading the Bible. Me too, I exclaimed!
Then, as often is the case when I get excited, I talked too much. My long rambling sentences were overwhelming and she tried to form her words, stumbling as the cadence and complexity of our conversation increased, but wanting so badly to communicate. She would stop and just listen patiently, smile and try to communicate through the haze of scrambled thoughts and words for me to try again. Then, I’d rephrase a remark for simplicity, and off we went again talking about her travels.
In that moment, we were both learning how to spend time with one another. Learning how to speak Alzheimer’s. My challenge was to make the sentences simple and concise and hers was to fight through the illness and connect her memories into words. Working through our communication gap, it was so nice to share these memories. Time passed quickly as we smiled and shared. We both enjoyed keeping the conversation alive; each of us getting fulfillment in learning our new language and laughing at funny things together.
I learned more than just her back story that night. Yes, I learned that she was a well traveled woman; one with a kind spirit and a twinkle in her eye. But I also learned that while Alzheimer’s Disease was fading the connections between mind and mouth, it had not robbed her of the desire for human connection, and it had not left her without a story to share.
At the end of my visit, the staff looked at me and asked if I was related to her. No, I replied…I’ve just learned to speak Alzheimer’s. I invited them to give it a try with her some time. I shared the simple secrets I had learned that day – of discovering her passion, keeping the sentences 3-5 words long, and authentically engaging the conversation with the encouragement to share whatever they can. I encouraged the staff to work on engagement that brings joy to both the resident and themselves as they discover this new way to communicate. Lastly, I told them by sharing a few words together, or even just the time spent holding hands, you’ll be amazed how deeply the connection is felt, how clearly Alzheimer’s does not break the soul, and how strong the bonds of friendship can grow.
Beth Cayce, CEO, CaraVita Home Care