Here’s the thing about dementia- if you know one person with dementia, you know one person with dementia. No two people with dementia are the same, because no two people are the same. However, research into the areas of the brain that are changed by Alzheimer’s and dementia has lead to some pretty amazing discoveries about not only what we lose, but what we keep when it comes to brain function.
My experience with working with people with dementia is personal, as it always is with any caregiver. Somehow, dementia robs us of so many things, but somehow also opens us up and exposes our true nature. Yes, there are dark frustrating moments, but there are moments of unbelievable opportunity, connection, and engagement.
Below are three tools for optimizing on the moments of opportunity and maximizing the time we spend on the sunnier side of dementia.
1. Sensory Stimulation
If you have been in the care-giving or Alzheimer’s world for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard of methods like Snoezelen Multisensory Rooms. If you haven’t, check out this article from NIH. Basically, what Snoezelen does is incorporate sensory stimulating products like aroma diffusers, lighting, and tactile products into one space where people with dementia can spend a session. Studies done in these spaces showed that participants were calmer, less combative, and also stimulated and more engaged.
The good news is that you don’t need an extra room or even all of the equipment from Snoezelen to start maximizing the sensory experience of people with dementia. Sensory materials can be found anywhere and incorporated easily into daily life. Look for lavender essential oils, scraps or old fabrics (or a laundry basket full of clean laundry just out of the dryer), photo albums, lava lamps, fish tanks, etc.
2. Music Therapy
As a disclaimer, I am friends with a lot of musicians that specialize in serving the senior population and they would hit me over the head with their cellos if I didn’t qualify that Music Therapy is a field with professionals that are certified in working with populations like dementia. Disclaimer out of the way, anyone can incorporate music in therapeutic ways into the days of those they are caring for. Simply by finding out the music or artists that your loved one or client has listened to throughout their life and playing them during ADL (Activities of Daily Living) assistance can decrease resistance to care and increase engagement.
With almost every type of dementia, the part of the brain where music is processed is the last to go. This means that incorporating music can be meaningful in any stage of the disease process. The good news is that there is no shortage of ways to explore music with those we are caring for. Filling an mp3 player or iPad with music, watching YouTube videos of live performances, or incorporating rhythm into daily tasks are great ways to use music. If you haven’t already been a part of or witnessed a therapeutic drum circle, you should. In fact, check out my friends Alan Yellowitz and Adam Mason of The Beat Goes On, LLC here.
3. Phrase Completion
If you haven’t heard of this one yet, don’t worry. Better late than _____. There’s no time like the _______. See what I did there?
Phrase completion works because it’s a lot like music. Ever wonder why you remember the lyrics to Black Eyed Peas songs from 2006 but can’t remember where they keep the almonds in the grocery store? (Tip: I’ve realized that sometimes the answer to that second one is the cereal aisle, the baking aisle, the bulk aisle, or the organic aisle, depending on what store you’re in. That’s crazy. Let’s make a nut aisle and call it a day.) Anyway, the reason that we remember those lyrics, and the reason you’re able to tell me where Mother Hubbard lived is because those sing-song factoids are coded and stored differently in our brains.
Try this with someone who has dementia. Google “nursery rhymes”, “idioms”, “proverbs” or “finish the phrase”. Say these and leave out the last word. I’ve found it often takes a while to get those with dementia to warm up to this. It sometimes helps if you act as though you can’t remember how the phrase ends. In case you want to try a few yourself now, here we go:
A penny saved is a _________.
Out with the old and ________.
Wee Willie Winkie _________.
A bird in the hand is ________.
Simple Simon met ________.
Care=giving is hard work. It might be the hardest work there is. Remembering that each moment is just that, a moment, is sometimes the best way to continue on through the dark. Be creative, be willing to play, and always remember that patience is a _____________.