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Dementia advocate presents caring tips

The Herald-Dispatch - 5/19/2017

HUNTINGTON - Caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia can be a lot like time-traveling.

"Instead of explaining the fact of the situation, I'm going to take a portal to your reality," said Carolyn Canini, program director for the West Virginia chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "Now you see me as an ally, not an enemy."

Canini gave a presentation on effective communication strategies for caregivers Thursday afternoon at River Park Hospital. She focused on strategies to communicate with those in the early and middle stages of their disease.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. It is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer's, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment.

But even in the earliest stages, communication can change. Canini described "word salad," where the person can't come up with words or uses other words, sometimes made up, to describe what he or she is trying to say.

This can also affect decision-making skills and can make things like understanding what the doctor is saying even harder, because it's harder for the brain to process words.

Canini said the biggest thing to watch out for in the early stages is withdrawing from social situations.

"You've probably experienced this on a smaller level," Canini said. "Let's say you go into a community meeting or a church service or something you haven't been to in a while. Maybe we grew up together, and I know I know you. I should remember your name, but for whatever reason, I can't come up with it. Don't expect me to come up to you and talk to you. I'm going to avoid you, because that's an embarrassing situation. The same thing can start to happen when people are forgetting faces, forgetting names and then having more trouble keeping up with conversations as they bounce around the room. People can start to withdraw."

Canini also suggested having a conversation with loved ones to figure out how they want help. Do they want you to help out and give them the word they are searching for, or would they rather have time to come up with it themselves?

As the person moves deeper into the progression of the disease, it will become harder to find words, follow conversations and remember things. People with dementia also have a smaller window of vision as the disease progresses, which is also important to remember when communicating.

Canini said it's important not to criticize, correct and argue with a person. That's where the portal to their reality comes in.

"With the purpose of maintaining that person's dignity and helping them save face, I would not recommend doing a lot of quizzing," Canini said. "It would be like this: 'Mom, it's me, Carolyn, your daughter. I'm glad we get to visit today.' It feels super-awkward to introduce yourself to your parents, to your spouse, to your sister - but now she has the same information I have about our relationship."

It's also important to have a support system for yourself, which is why the Alzheimer's Association is planning to have more workshops in Huntington in the future.

The Alzheimer's Association also has a free, 24/7 support hot line, 800-272-3900.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Communicating with dementia patients

Communication tips for successful interactions with individuals with dementia/Alzheimer's:

n Be patient.

n Be reassuring and comforting.

n Show that you are interested and listening.

n Focus on the feeling, not the facts.

n Put emphasis on what the person can do.

n Prepare a person for what's about to happen.

n Assume the person understands everything you say.

n Don't argue, criticize, correct or reason.

n Keep your sense of humor - and remember: The person with dementia has one, too.


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