If your family has not been touched by a member with Alzheimer’s Disease, senile dementia, or some other form of memory-killing disease, you’re in a lucky minority.
A good friend told how her brother-in-law eased the pain of her mother’s slide into dementia, with little lies. The mother developed an invisible friend who had to accompany her on most outings. The problem was that the invisible friend was also invisible to the mother. The brother-in-law, frustrated at the mother’s refusal leave her room for an outing because the friend was not apparent to accompany them, finally told the mother that the friend was already in the car. Mom happily scooted to the car and forgot about the friend completely by the time they got to the car.
The friend was “already there” for much of the rest of the mother’s life. It was a lie, a falsehood, but it made things so much easier.
CBS Evening News tonight featured a story on a potential new treatment for dementia. In one segment, a husband was quizzing his dementia-affected wife, and she could not recall what he had told her just a few minutes before, how many years they had been married. Frustrating for the victim as well as the family.
A British psychologist, Oliver James, has a new book out that suggests such quizzes do more damage, and are unnecessary. Help the victim along with cues, he says. It’s a trick he got from his own mother-in-law, Penny Garner, from her experience working with her mother.
In Dorothy’s case, Garner found that while she [Dorothy] had no idea what she had done moments before, she automatically tried to make sense of her situation by matching it to past experiences. Dorothy had always enjoyed travelling, and so if she was asked to sit with other people for any length of time, she assumed she was in the Heathrow departure lounge. By not challenging this assumption, Garner found that her mother would sit peacefully for long periods. If she did wander off, Garner found she could encourage her to return by reminding her of her former skill as a bridge-player, telling her that the other players were waiting for her. “Given a properly set up bridge table, my mother would spend hours happily looking at her cards and waiting to play,” she says.
People with dementia are often exhausting to care for because they forget what they are doing during routine activities. Garner found that she could enable her mother to remain relatively independent by providing cues. “If while getting ready for bed, I noticed she had lost track of whether she was buttoning up the cardigan ready to go out or taking it off to go to bed, I would fiddle with my buttons alongside her and say ‘Oh good! No more travelling for us today! Glad we’ve got a bed for the night!’ I found that this simple cue was all she needed. Without it, she was inclined to get half-way through undressing and then start getting dressed again.”
We all look for such cues in everyday life, and we use them to remind us of what we are doing, where we are going, and why. Why not make it easier for victims of dementia?
Who is president of the United States? Half the time I’d prefer to forget it’s George W. Bush. Don’t quiz me on it. Ask me if it isn’t great that we’re electing someone to replace him, this fall.
Smart human tricks.