July 1, 2015

supporting the person with dementia

Yesterday I talked about my dad and mentioned his diagnosis of dementia/Alzheimer's. As it happened, I had an appointment with my therapist later that day. And as it happens, she specializes in geriatric depression. Divine appointment?

I expressed my feelings of sadness, helplessness, and frustration at my lack of ability to help him. I wish I could offer him more than a phone call or visit. I wish God would heal him. But until or unless that happens, there is fortunately something I can do to support him. That is to engage his mind.

Supporting a person with dementia is all about meeting them where they are. Putting oneself in their shoes. Understanding the emotions that they grapple with, which in my dad's case must be deep depression, unresolving anger, and utter fear and helplessness that I can only imagine. What if someone told you that, as of now, you can expect your memories, awareness, and comprehension of life to slip away from you slowly, one day at a time, like a dripping faucet until at last you don't know your family or where you are? How do you live for today, for right now? What can you hold on to?

My therapist likened the daily life of a person with dementia to Swiss cheese: On good days, you're in the cheese and you're able to remember things and participate in normal activities. On other days, you're near the edge of a hole in the cheese, just holding on to pieces of conversation or struggling to remember your birthdate.

Engaging the mind is one of the best ways of holding on to it, and two ways of doing that are through activities and memories -- tapping into the past.

My dad used to be a pool shark. He and my mom used to go out and play pool before they had kids, and rarely had to buy their own drinks. He taught me everything I know about pool, and I got to play with him last month. He didn't make too many shots, but he was keen enough to point out the mistakes I was making and congratulate me on good moves. He genuinely enjoyed himself and remarked on how he had more stamina than he thought he would. So, every time I see him from now on, I will take him to play pool with me.

I've been calling him at least twice a month, but now I will make sure to call once a week. And when I do, I will ask him questions about his past. What is his favorite 4th of July memory? What was it like during the Depression for him and his brothers? What is his happiest memory? These questions tap into those precious pockets of long-term memory and engage him beyond the present. It's also a safe bet that no one else is asking him such things. Not because they don't care, but just because it's not something most people think of doing.

Oh yes, and the next time I see him I will give him a big, long hug and cook him a good steak.