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Senior holding hands with someone
Jun 18, 2019

How To Deal With A Parent Or Friend Who Has Dementia Or Alzheimer

An image was posted on the DaretobeKind Movement’s FB page, and it inspired me to write a bit more about this. First of all, let me start by saying that it is not easy to see someone you love deteriorate and get older, whether it is physically or mentally, both are very tough. However, it gives those who observe it in our loved ones a chance to become better human beings.

Here goes: I have never known why I am so good with the elderly, maybe it’s because I was introduced to their world very early on in my life by my mother, as she volunteered, and it intrigued me to talk with them. I always liked that they were honest and direct, unlike the many adults around me during my childhood. The contrast was quite interesting to observe and feel.

A senior once told me, “I have no time to waste,” and that this was the reason to be direct. I instantly liked that and thought, I am direct, too, because I have a lot of other places to go to, so I will do the same…

Long before my dad became ill, I hung around seniors and volunteered in many different countries, and it is true that when you walk into most nursing homes for the elderly it can be a bit depressing, what we witness: Seniors slumped in their chairs, half asleep, and the smell is often enough to make you want to run back to the entrance. This is true even though not all places are bad. But when you are young or definitely an adult, you know that you never want to end up here. Having said that, we know how incredibly hard it is to leave any loved one in a home and even worse in a special unit where they are locked in, supposedly “for their own safety.”

For some inexplicable reason, we want to show most seniors how superior we are and especially how well-functioning our own brain is compared to theirs. Newsflash! They are not stupid. It is just that the brain is slowly deteriorating… that is all. Please think of the senior first before communicating with them!

I have always had this gentle attitude that whatever they, the seniors, say, I just go along to get along… So if they tell me we are in World War II, and ask if I was able to get some milk, I will instantly play along.

I answer with a very serious face and tell them I was unable to do that, but I have found a cup of tea and would that do for now? And the answer will stun you. The senior across from you will grab your hand and hold on to it with all their strength and say fervently and with a tiny tremor, “Did you now? What a good and clever girl you are!”  

Wow! Never has anyone told me anything so nice… It warms my heart and I race out of the room to get the cup of tea (making sure not to pour milk in it—remember, I had said there was no milk). I am totally experiencing through the senior’s experience a moment of the second World War. What is even more beautiful is that this nice lady is letting me in. She is allowing herself to be vulnerable and so strong and beautiful at the same moment that it takes my breath away. She teaches me things that I cannot explain while my brain tucks it away. The more I listen, the more I know about this woman—not the senior who can’t walk—no! But about the actual woman behind the wrinkles: the essence of her. She was a driver of medicine during the war and had to drive like a maniac, she tells me, to get to the right places, in circumstances that were dangerous and over terrible road conditions. Just one of the many stories I have from seniors.  

Before I leave her room, I give her the best gift I can give and that is human contact. I give her a big bear hug, and I hold her a bit longer than I need to. I take the empty tea cup and at the door, I look back one more moment and see the animated person slumped once more in her chair, as if we had never talked. She is back in a world where I cannot find her.

This list has 10 To Dos, which I hope you will always do with everyone, not only if they have dementia. When I saw this, I felt I would want all those things done to me, and I have no brain malfunction. If you really, really look down the list, you know that you don’t want to be shamed or have some say “I told you so…” None of us wants that.

It is, of course, way easier to do if this if it is not your loved one… but even then. I loved Harvey and my father, and both are from a totally different era than mine.  

The beautiful and most difficult parts are left out when dealing with dementia and Alzheimer. Remember that they really cannot remember you, but only at that moment. If you are not good at living in the moment, you will feel a lot of resistance as you cannot play and let go.  

Whenever my dad did not recognize me, I would just sit at a respectful distance and say hello (without a hug) and wait for his reply. And he would ask “Do I know you?” My answer, “I think so!” And he would tell me he was married, and I, with a huge grin I cannot hide, would say, “I don’t go for men that old, no disrespect Mr. van Rij.” All of a sudden he would hear a nurse call my name, “Gabriella….” And my father would turn and say, as if nothing prior had happened, “Ah, so, you are Gabriella.” Now that is my cue to go up to him and give him a gentle kiss on his cheek.  

Harvey, a really old, sweet man, who recognized nobody in his family and who would ask the nurses each morning who they were, had the doctors stumped as he never stopped knowing who I was. He could not, as the disease had progressed, find the letters to create the long syllables of the name Gabriella, and ended up calling me the “Paki girl” (very tenderly). One day, the doctors asked “Who is that walking in?” and he answered with such certainty and the disbelief of a good old Englishman with that beautiful accent, “That is the Paki girl and of course I know her! She has never changed.”  

Once again the doctor pushes, as he is trying to learn more about this disease and this is his chance. “Harvey, why do you recognize her?”  

He answers, “Her energy is still the same from the little girl I met at the orphanage so long ago.” The sentence came out without any difficulty, and we all were quiet and gave each other astonished looks.

To summarize these 10 steps of living with dementia: Just take their stories and learn, be interested, and, above all, give them your undivided attention, even if they have no clue of their relationship with you because that one moment is all you get.

See, all you have to do is adapt to their reality and then make a beautiful moment out of it to remember!

My 3 steps:

Be in their moment

Be totally present with them

Give them human contact