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Understanding people with dementia

Not a normal part of aging, dementia is apparent when the brain has difficulty to receive, process, store, recall and output information. In other words, our wiring becomes faulty and communication impaired.

Not a normal part of aging, dementia is apparent when the brain has difficulty to receive, process, store, recall and output information.

In other words, our wiring becomes faulty and communication impaired. Although symptoms vary, people with dementia may also experience memory loss, diminished judgment and/ or a change in motor function.

Statistics obtained from Alzheimer.ca (accessed July 2011) are staggering.

Today, half a million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. Approximately 71,000 of them are under age 65. This means that one in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 currently has Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.

This year alone, more than 103,000 Canadians will develop dementia. This is equivalent to one person every five minutes. By 2038, this will become one person every two minutes, or more than 257,000 people per year. If nothing changes, the number of people living with Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia is expected to more than double, reaching 1.1 million Canadians within 25 years.

These statistics tell us at least two things. One, if you care for a family member or friend with dementia, you are not alone. And two, there is a good chance you will meet someone with dementia and have the opportunity to use the communication techniques listed below.

Each person is unique in values, experiences, beliefs and needs. Each of these unique persons and their caregivers will also experience dementia in their own way. All together this makes meaningful communication a creative challenge.

Despite our individuality, there are general techniques that one can employ when caring for someone with dementia.

"Life is 10 per cent of what happens to you, 90 per cent how you respond to it" (Lou Holtz). Humans are adaptable. Humans with dementia adapt in ways, too. One way I believe people accommodate "faulty wiring," is to develop a sixth sense. They seem to be sensitive to attitude. I can best explain using the example of dispensing medications on a special care unit for people with dementia.

If I approach someone with a negative defeated attitude, I will more than likely receive a negative response -- they outright refuse their medications. But if I approach with a positive and respectful attitude, nine times out of 10 I will receive a positive response -- they take their medications without a second thought. This brings us to number one on the list.

1) First and foremost, carry with you a positive attitude. Think success.

2) Approach from the front, making eye contact.

3) Be patient and respectful.

4) Use a calm, unhurried approach.

5) Introduce yourself and address the person by name.

6) Keep it simple. One thought, one question or one instruction at a time.

7) If the response is not what you expected, explore the response you received. Every behaviour has meaning.

7) Offer limited choices - the blue shirt or the red shirt.

8) Use a touch on the arm, shoulder, hand.

9) Discuss what they know or have experienced.

10) Use humour.

11) Look for the person when communicating. Reach for and look for the light that finds its way through. You'll be amazed at what you discover.

For more information go to www.alzheimerbc.org.

Jan Gazley RN, BScN is a nurse with 25 years of experience including caring for people with dementia.

Wendy Thompson MA is a gerontologist, caregiver consultant and coach, published author and former Olympian.

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