Saturday, November 21, 2015

Visiting Someone With Alzheimer’s: Emotions Without Memories (Research)

During my years as a hospice volunteer in nursing homes, I have spent a lot of time with people who had Alzheimer’s disease. It was not unusual for me to sit at a lunchroom table for eight and be the only one there without Alzheimer’s. I not only learned a lot from them, I became a better person as a direct result of my observations and our unique exchanges. Without realizing it, they refined my mastery of thinking outside the box by taking me weekly to an Oz I respected. One thing I know for sure is that the mind is complex, unpredictable, and closely connected to quality of life.

I thought about this when I read Alzheimer’s research about emotions that people with the disease have long after memories that caused those feelings have disappeared. A sample of 17 participants with probable Alzheimer’s disease and 17 healthy comparison participants underwent separate emotion induction procedures in which they watched film clips. The clips were intended to induce feelings of sadness or happiness. An evaluation of the emotions later revealed that participants with Alzheimer’s had severely impaired memory of both the sad and happy films. But they continued to report high levels of persisting sadness and happiness beyond their memory of the actual films. The sadness associated with the sad films lasted more than 30 minutes.

This research reminds us that the emotional lives of individuals with Alzheimer's can be greatly influenced by experiences, people, and places they do not recall. Caregivers and others must be sensitive to this when managing, interpreting, and responding to behaviors of those with Alzheimer’s. Loved ones who avoid visiting them because “She doesn’t know who I am” or “I can’t deal with his confusion” must be mindful that the purpose of their presence has nothing to do with anyone's ability to remember anything, including them. Visits should be focused on spending quality time generating emotions that help those with the disease feel better, knowing they are loved even after the visit has ended. Visitors can leave with satisfying personal memories of pleasant emotions they inspired.

The Alzheimer's Association website offers supportive communication tips and techniques for successful visits. Included are activities to do together and suggestions on how to respond to various behaviors. For many other services, a 24/7 Helpline is available at 1-800-272-3900.

1) Honoring a Nun Who Has Alzheimer's Dementia

You can read my tribute at the link below to a nun who positively impacted my life as a child and later developed and died from Alzheimer’s disease:

2) Children Learn About Dementia, Alzheimer's: School, Family Support (Video 3:51)

An educator who has been actively involved with introducing elementary-middle school children to the nursing home world and dementia for many years, I have always been impressed with the sensitive ways they embrace knowledge about this disease. Visit the link below to learn more about this form of teaching-learning called service-learning.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.

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