In two recent posts, I discussed some of the many reasons that Kate and I have lived well while “Living with Alzheimer’s.” Many of them were unrelated to anything specific we have intentionally done. Some of them, however, were deliberate choices we made that turned out to be very beneficial. As a result, some people might think I would jump at the chance to give advice to others, but such is not the case. Let me explain.
Long before Kate’s diagnosis, I learned that many caregivers are annoyed by the advice they receive from friends and family. That occurs most often because the person giving the advice doesn’t fully understand the situation of the person receiving it. There’s a saying that is common among the community of dementia caregivers. “If you’ve had one experience with dementia, you’ve had one experience with dementia.” The point is that each case of dementia has its own unique characteristics; therefore, what works in one situation may not work in another.
When people give advice, they usually believe that what worked for them will work for others. They do this without fully understanding that the circumstances of the person receiving the advice may be (and often is) quite different from their own.
My earliest personal encounter with this occurred after we brought Kate’s mother into our home with 24/7 in-home care. Kate was annoyed when an acquaintance periodically encouraged her to put her mother in a skilled nursing facility. That might have been a good suggestion for some people, but not for us. For a variety of reasons, we believed that in-home care was the best option for her mother and for us. I still believe that. Since then, I’ve heard other caregivers talk about their irritation with similar unwanted advice.
As a result, I try to avoid giving advice. There is one notable exception. That is based on what I learned from Judy Cornish, author of Dementia Handbook and Dementia with Dignity. Her approach to dementia caregiving emphasizes an important distinction between rational and intuitive thought. In her view, all is not lost with dementia. Although people with dementia lose their rational thought, they retain their intuitive thought which relies on direct experience with the world via our senses.
That means that even as memory declines, people with dementia can continue to enjoy many aspects of life. For Kate and me, that has involved music, movies, theater, dining out, and social connections. With Kate at late-stage Alzheimer’s, we can’t pursue these interests in the same way that we did during earlier stages. For example, she lost the ability to use her computer which allowed her to connect with family and friends and work on photobooks of family photos. She also lost her ability to use her iPad. She had used it to work jigsaw puzzles for hours a day. We gave up travel. We gave up eating out. As I often say, our world today is much smaller than it used to be, but we can still enjoy life and each other. That’s because we continue to find activities that she can appreciate via her intuitive thought. That includes music which has been an important source of entertainment throughout our marriage.
My primary advice to others who confront the diagnosis of dementia is to accept the fact that rational thinking will become weaker and weaker and focus on what loved ones with dementia can do and appreciate. When you think about it, most of the things we enjoy, whether we have dementia or not, relate to intuitive not rational thought. We don’t derive most of our pleasure from our knowledge of things like the names of current political figures or how to multiply or divide 1,396 by 3. Most of our pleasure comes from eating our favorite foods, listening to music, watching movies or TV, time with good friends, etc. A person with dementia can enjoy all of these things even years after their diagnosis.
I’d like to emphasize one other thing that people with dementia can appreciate via their intuitive thought, and that is LOVE. Love can play a role in lifting anyone’s spirits, but it can be especially helpful with people who have dementia. Their loss of rational thought can easily lead to a lower sense of self-worth. People respond differently to them because they are often unsure of what to do or say. The result is that people with dementia are often ignored, and their sense of self-worth is weakened.
For that reason, I believe caregivers should do everything they can to make sure their loved ones know that they are loved – that they matter. This is easier said than done. Caregivers often find themselves so occupied by routine responsibilities of caregiving (that their own rational thought tells them are important) that they overlook the most important thing they can do – making loved ones feel they are loved.
One reason I feel comfortable giving this advice is that it does not require that other caregivers do the same things that Kate and I have done. When we decided to enjoy life and each other for as long as we were able, we looked to things that had always given us pleasure – music, movies, theater, eating out, travel, and time with friends and family. We were lucky that both of us enjoyed all of these things. That doesn’t happen with every couple, but I do hope that other couples and families might be able to find their own ways to enjoy life and each other. It is certainly worth trying.