Saturday, December 11, 2010

Communicating with Dementia Patients

Saturday, December 11, 2010
I wrote this article for Type-A Parent ( and thought it was important enough to repeat on my blog. As the population ages, dementia is becoming a huge problem. And the woman in the article has found a way to communicate with dementia patients, even after they stop speaking.

Here’s a link to the article:

It’s frustrating for grandchildren of any age to witness a beloved grandmother going downhill because of dementia. Unfortunately, lots of young people don’t visit their grandmothers because they’re uncomfortable with the disease. They often don’t know whether to attempt a conversation, or what to say when they do. It’s especially difficult for the young, because they usually haven’t had much exposure to dementia.

Well, Michelle S. Bourgeois, a speech-pathology professor at Ohio State, has come up with a method of making those conversations go a little more smoothly. According to an article in the November 21, 2010, issue of Parade Magazine, Bourgeois discovered that Alzheimer’s disease first strikes the part of the brain that controls learning and memory processes. But, because reading is a skill that becomes automatic, after doing it all our lives, patients are often still able to understand simple printed explanations.

For example, while volunteering for hospice, I had a patient who would ask about every five minutes when her daughter would return home. Bourgeois suggests using flash cards with simple messages printed on them. So I could have printed “Your daughter will be home at 6:00” in large letters. And in many cases, patients understand the message and stop asking so often. If they do repeat the question, simply tell them that the answer is on the card.

Reading can help even in cases of anger and anxiety in people with dementia. Bourgeois tells of a situation where the patient refused to shower. So her aide made a card that read, “Showers make me feel fresh and clean” and gave it to the patient when it was time to shower. It actually worked. Bourgeois said, “Even when dementia is so advanced that people cannot speak, they can read if the words are large enough.” She goes on to say that spoken words aren’t stored in memory, so they’re ineffective.

In another situation, Bourgeois tells of a patient who told her daughter, “You’re not my Susan.” So the daughter gave her mother two photos, with notes written under them. One said, “This is my daughter Susan at age three.” And the other note said, “This is my daughter Susan now.” When the patient looked at the two photos and notes, she replied, “As beautiful as ever.”

I am really excited about this and will definitely try it with my next dementia patient. I’ll also share the Parade article with my patients’ caregivers and the hospice organization for which I volunteer. (In the meantime, if any caregivers out there try this with a dementia patient, I’d love to know if it was successful.)
But I’m writing about it here, because it would be tragic for grandchildren to stop visiting grandmothers afflicted with dementia. Bourgeois says that people tend to treat these patients as if they’re not the persons they were, “But they’re still here.”

Photo by: Charlmers Butterfield©
Title: Elderly Woman


agemattersclinic said...

Dementia patients face many challenges, but they still have the need to feel needed.

Dementia Clinic

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