According to the National Alzheimer's Association, an estimated 5.4 million people have Alzheimer's Disease, and 15.2 million of their friends and family members provide 17.4 billion hours of unpaid care. Maybe you're the full-time caregiver for a spouse, parent, grandparent, or other loved one. Maybe you know someone who is. But the reality is this: At some point in our life, we will most likely all be touched by this horrible disease, which robs our loved ones of their precious memories, oftentimes very slowly, over several years, other times, much quicker. But, however this disease affects your loved one, you are most certainly not alone.
In this column, I'd like to offer some very basic guidelines and ideas on how you, as a caregiver, can make your life less stressful, while also helping your loved one to relax and enjoy life a little bit more, as least as much as possible.
One very simple technique, once you get used to using it, will make your life, as well as that of the person with Alzheimer's, much less stressful. It's called Validation Therapy, and it was developed by Naomi Fell, a social worker who grew up immersed in the care of older adults. Her mother was a social worker, and her father was a nursing home administrator.
Validation Therapy is simply "entering your loved ones reality", whether that be for a moment, or for a day...whatever it takes to calm them down and ease their agitation.
Here's an example.
Let's say that your mother lives with you, and she constantly says that she'd like to go visit her mother, who is deceased. Rather than reiterate to her that her mother is no longer living, proponents of validation therapy suggest that you say things such as, "You must miss Grandma very much. Let's sit and talk about some of our favorite memories of her." Or, you could ask her what her favorite thing to do with her mother was, perhaps it was baking, so you might suggest that the two of you bake a cake, in honor of Grandma. You will be surprised at how quickly this will ease her mind. Yes, it may sound silly to you, but you have to remember: This is their reality!
Another idea is to take a shoebox full of old family photos, and ask your loved one to tell you about the pictures. Don't overwhelm them, let them decide when they're done. Maybe it will be after only 4 or 5, or maybe they'll want to do 9 or 10. At any rate, write down exactly what they tell you about the picture. I promise you that this will be meaningful to them as they reminisce and take a walk down memory lane, and someday, when they are no longer here, it will be priceless to you!
Reach out to your local Alzheimer's Association, or visit their website at alz.org. You can also call their 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900. This line is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, by a trained professional. They will listen to you, and give you the help you need, as well as put you in touch with your local Care Coordinator within 24 hours. This is a great resource that many people are unaware of, and they are a non-profit organization, so their services are free.
The Alzheimer's Association also has local support groups, which meet monthly. Locally, there's a meeting on the 1st Thursday of the month at the Waynedale Public Library at 10 am, and at Risen Savior Lutheran Church, 8010 W. Jefferson Blvd., Fort Wayne, which meets on the 2nd Thursday of the month at 6:30 pm. If you would like a complete listing of all sites and times, please email me.
Lastly, don't forget to ask for help. When meeting with families for the first time, I often use the analogy of boarding an airplane. There's a reason that the flight attendant tells you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping another passenger. You can't help anyone else if you're not taking care of yourself. It's the same with life. Don't get burnt out on taking care of your loved one. If a friend or relative asks what they can do to help, they genuinely mean it. Ask if they would mind sitting with your mom for a couple of hours so you could go to lunch with a friend. It's a win-win for everyone. Your mom gets the chance to visit with a new face, your friend gets the opportunity to help you, and you get a much needed break.
Until next time, remember to take time for you!