My First Encounter
When I was about 15 years old, I had my first true encounter with Alzheimer’s Disease. My grandfather was in a nursing facility and barely recognized anyone. He could remember my brother and said “my grandson, Daniel!” But when he saw me, he grabbed my hand, smiled brightly and said “Emily, my sweet, sweet Emily.” I stood there beside his bed, holding his hand because when he saw me, he saw my grandmother.
Growing up, I spent many Saturday afternoons in nursing facilities singing and visiting with the residents. At that time, I never really understood anything about the aging process other than knowing that people got “old,” their skin wrinkled, and their hair turned gray or white. Little did I know that my career would lead to working with geriatric individuals and I love it!
I have been a Geriatric Speech-Language Pathologist since 2013. My favorite thing is working on cognition with my clients. As young mothers, our parents/grandparents are starting to show signs of cognitive decline, unless they are one of the lucky “Super Agers.” So, let me start off with explaining what a Super Ager is and how those things can help your aging parent.
Super Agers are older adults that are still cognitively at a similar place to middle aged individuals. You’ll find various articles on this topic, but three things I have found they have in common are as follows:
Physically Active – They take time on a regular basis to get some form of exercise. Daily walks, going to the gym, bicycling, weight lifting, etc. It is so important for our bodies to have some form of physical exercise. Now, if your parent has some kind of physical ailment that prevents them from doing certain physical activities, try to suggest something they CAN do – chair, water, or bed exercises are potentially possible options, even if they need some assistance.
Mentally Active – Do your parents enjoy word search puzzles, crossword, Sudoku, or jigsaw puzzles? Do they still participate in financial management (even if someone else has taken over their finances)? Doing things to keep the brain active is a vital part of keeping our brains firing at optimal levels. One thing I love to challenge my clients with is doing something they don’t typically do – use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, take a different route to the store or work, spend 10 minutes doing simple math problems, etc. Cognitive skills can decline in such a way that it truly follows the “use it or lose it” saying. I often suggest getting elementary level activity books (mazes, word search, math problems, etc.), not as an insult to their intelligence, but it is more enjoyable and not as frustrating for many people. There are also many apps for tablets that can be used for cognitive strengthening.
Socially Active – Do your parents have a local Senior Center? Regular get togethers with family/friends? Tuesday breakfast club with the ladies? Bible study group? Social interaction is important and I think with much of the country sheltering in place for several months, we can understand this at a greater level. Many older adults are cut off from social interaction for various reasons – health problems, inability to drive, etc. Finding ways for them to connect with peers on a regular basis is critical for staying mentally healthy.
If your parent has already declined beyond their ability to do things at this level, I would suggest getting a diagnosis to help further pinpoint their deficits and understand how they may decline. Dementia is an “umbrella term” with various types, so probe their healthcare team to get as much information as you can about their particular diagnosis.
If you are caring for your loved one, bless you for taking on that responsibility! Make sure you are getting time for yourself sometimes too! Here are a few suggestions to help make life easier:
Routine – Keeping a consistent schedule, living environment, etc. will help keep them calm and more relaxed. Many times, older individuals will act out when their needs are not being met and they don’t always know how to express what they need. Start with the basics – bathroom, hunger, thirst, or fatigue. Use a digital calendar/clock to help them keep track of the day/time. Use check lists and notification alerts (if they are somewhat tech-savvy) for medication and appointment reminders.
Simplify – Keep your speech simple, but do not treat them like a child. Offer items with this/that or yes/no questions versus listing off six things for them to choose from.
Patience – You have probably heard the same question a million times and want to just scream. Try taking some deep breaths and walk away if you need to. If it is something simple, try writing the answer down and provide them with the written answer when they repeatedly ask or place it in a spot that they can easily see it. Labeling things or having things written down will help them and you from getting as frustrated. Try not to get upset when they don’t recognize you or think you are someone else. If they become combative and you can safely walk away, do so. Keep in mind that telling them sad/upsetting news can often stick with them emotionally, even if they do not remember why they feel sad or upset. Repeatedly reminding them that someone they loved is no longer alive is often not recommended – simply change the subject or redirect their attention.
Reminisce – Look at old photos together, talk about the “good old days,” watch old movies, listen to their favorite music, and enjoy the moments you have together, because life is short.
It is HARD seeing someone you love decline and especially when they do not recognize you anymore. Find a local support group or individual counselor if you need to talk with someone. There are many resources available online, including on the Alzheimer’s Association website.
Author: Kemily Lawrence
Kemily is a Chicago transplant to Maryland who is a geriatric Speech-Language Pathologist, Pure Romance consultant, and Market Director for Sixx Cool Moms of Washington County. She is also the mom to 17 month old Liam.