“To love a person is to learn the song in their heart and sing it to them when they have forgotten” is a beautiful, inspirational quote by the late Norwegian author, Arne Gaborg. His words ring so true in my heart as I think back to my time spent caring for my late father, Gordon C. Gunn.Reflecting on my family’s experience during the 13-year period of caring for my father, I would love to help shed light on the often overlooked challenges of caregiving for a loved one with dementia.
The changes do not occur overnight, and often they are not readily noticeable during the early stage. It is almost like a quirkiness in their behavior that is barely noticed. However, slowly they begin to have minor slip-ups, a lapse in memory or poor judgment more frequently. Dr. Germane Odenheimer, a neurologist in Edmond who also was my father’s doctor, said that the disease affects the gray matter in the brain by causing small pin pricks that eventually turn into holes that resemble Swiss cheese.
Caregivers learn quickly that you can no longer use the question, “Well, don’t you remember?” It can often be a natural reaction to the frustration of their loved one’s confusion because their behavior is so far from who you knew them to be. The Alzheimer’s Association has business cards available for when you are in public with your loved one that read, “Be patient with my loved one. He/She has Alzheimer’s.” The card assists with putting others at ease and opens a pathway to understanding and compassion for the situation.
A term I want to introduce is “therapeutic fibbing.” You may initially resist this because we associate fibbing with lying; however, think of it as a redirection. Consider that your loved one is no longer functioning at full capacity and is unable to make the best choices. Therefore, “therapeutic fibbing” is often done to redirect them to something more positive or helpful. It you to make decisions beneficial to them that they would otherwise fail to make due to high levels of anxiety and allows frustration.
One of the most important decisions that my family vowed to make was to keep things light and make life fun or humorous when my dad made small mistakes. Otherwise, you make the situation more difficult for everyone. My best advice would be to check your tone of voice as you address someone with dementia. At some point, they may not understand what you are saying, but they will always recognize a happy and positive tone of voice. You also need to get on their eye level and look directly into their eyes and assuredly say, “We are going to do this together.”
There are multiple resources available to help. Sunbeam Family Services, sunbeamfamilyservices.org, not only provides a “care-track bracelet” free of charge for your loved one but also has excellent support groups.
Other support groups are available at the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org, the Dementia Care for Veterans at www.va.gov, and the Dale K. Graham Veterans Foundation at dalekgrahamveteransfoundation.org/.
Also, the state Veterans Affairs Department’s central office can be reached at 405-523-4000. These avenues of assistance are vital for the caregivers of loved ones with dementia. Do not hesitate to reach out and find the support that you and your family need.
Robin Gunn is owner of The Oklahoma Senior Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column addressing senior issues will appear monthly in Viewpoints.