Tips on Connecting with an Alzheimer’s Patient

connecting alzheimer's

It’s a subject that strikes terror into the hearts of many, including me. During my junior year of high school, I got a solid B in Mrs. Mathews’ chemistry class and I was happy to be done with that subject, at least academically, for the rest of my life. Our older daughter, now a chemistry major, must have inherited those genes from her father, because they couldn’t have come from me!

Who would imagine that chemistry, that incredibly complicated subject, would be a way to connect with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease? But that’s exactly what Susan, a professional caregiver, did. She was caring for John, a retired college chemistry professor with Alzheimer’s disease. John had reached the point where he was withdrawn and silent, barely speaking during her visits. Even when he did speak, it was mostly garbled and nonsensical.

Fortunately for John and his family, Susan is one of those caregivers who persists until she connects. So how do you connect with a chemistry professor? Through the periodic table of elements, of course.

Without much expectation of success, Susan brought a laminated periodic table to John’s house with her one day. After she helped him up from his nap, she gave him the table. In her words, “Clear as day, he pointed to each little box and rattled off the name of the element!” After he finished, he said, “Thank you, I’ve been looking for this all day.”

What is your loved one’s periodic table? For Mary it was her wedding dress. I wrote a blog about her in 2012. She was in the same basic shape as John — incommunicative, withdrawn, seemingly ‘gone’. When her daughter brought her wedding dress to her, she became animated, talking about her wedding day, how much she loved her husband, her black sheep of a cousin whom they were worried would crash the wedding and myriad other details of that special day. For half an hour, Mary, who for all intents and purposes had lost her ability to communicate, suddenly regained it.

I heard another caregiver say that her father, a huge Alabama football fan, would come to life when someone would bring out his football which was signed by the entire 1961 National Championship team. Upon seeing this football, he would describe in detail the players, key blocks that allowed a running-back’s touchdown, beautiful passes thrown by the quarterback and critical, game-changing errors by the opposing team.

We are headed into the holidays, which can be the roughest part of the year for family caregivers. Large family get-togethers are a wonderful blessing, but can cause someone with Alzheimer’s disease to be more confused and agitated. There is also the additional work for an often already exhausted caregiver.

But the hardest part is the need to share the holidays with the person you love who cannot share in the way he or she used to. Times of connection grow less frequent, but often, creative caregivers can find ways to connect.

So I ask again, what is your loved one’s periodic table? For an English teacher, it might be reading familiar works she taught for many years; for an art lover, pictures of his favorite paintings or a visit to an art gallery.

Your loved one’s periodic table may not be an object at all. For my father-in-law, we connected with the hymns he sang as a child. Even though he was never a good singer in his formative years, and during the last 6 months of life had stopped speaking entirely, he was able to sing these hymns until a few hours before his death. For many others the music they connect with might be the dance songs of their teens and twenties.

For my grandmother, a devout Methodist, it was the mention of the fact that my future husband was a Methodist, too. “Grandmama, I’ve brought Danny Potts to meet you. We’re going to get married. He’s a good Methodist boy.” Although she had not spoken in months, was bed bound and unable even to feed herself, she said, “Oh! I like that kind!” How I treasure those words.

This holiday season, let’s think like Susan and try to find our loved one’s periodic table. When I asked her if I might use her story, her response was an enthusiastic, “YES.” I love what I do, and I love to share these tiny victories I come across every day in my life. I am grateful and blessed to be part of these people’s lives. Every day they remind me how precious life is, and how, despite this horrible disease, these people are still who they were before.

Yes, Susan. They are. At this time of year especially, let’s all learn to celebrate and be grateful for the tiny victories.

The author of this article is Ellen Woodward Potts and first appeared on MariaShriver.com

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