One of the biggest challenges Alzheimer's Caregivers face is how to communicate effectively with someone living with Alzheimer's disease. This challenge is particularly difficult when a person living with dementia becomes nasty and mean.
By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room
At the beginning, my mother turned meaner than a junkyard dog.
She said mean and nasty things to me every day. This was new. My mother had never engaged in these behaviors with me before.
I had a leg up on this one because I studied communication in college and graduate school.
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I understood that when my mother said something mean or nasty that it was the Alzheimer's at work. It was not hard to make this cognitive leap. She had never done it before, now she was. What changed? Her brain changed. It was sick.
Even though I understood what was happening, it still hurt when she said those things to me. She did make me feel angry and sad. Every day. Day in and Day out.
I knew I had to do something. I finally realized something had to change -- the first thing that had to change was me. I was going to need to learn how to label my feelings so I could control what I was feeling. Instead of mad, ready to take action.
I also decided I was going to have to do something to change Dotty. I already knew that trying to reason with someone suffering from Alzheimer's is like trying to jump over the empire state building in a single bound.
Here is a quick description of one of the things that I did start doing. And yes, over time Dotty stopped saying those mean and nasty things to me.
Everyday, early in the morning, I would bend down and say something nice and positive to my mother. While doing this, I put my forehead on her forehead. I tried to get her to smile and say "yes". I call this the positive reinforcement part of the process. When I say something nice, and when she responds yes --it anchors her.
I started to do this first thing in the morning several years ago. But not before I discovered that it worked and stopped her from being mean and vicious. I do it now in the same way I do many things -- before it is needed. I call this getting out in front. I also call it getting the day started on the right foot. I don't sit around and wait for the crap to hit the fan.
This is what I started doing in an effort to make my mother feel more secure and to stop saying mean things to me. My hope was that if I could make my mother feel more secure, she would stop being a junkyard dog.
When my mother would say something mean and nasty to me like,
I would smiled at her, put my head against her forehead, and say something positive like,
"I am here, and I am not going anywhere". While my forehead was still attached to hers I added something like,I was hoping beyond hope that somehow my mother would come to believe we were a team.
"We are both here to take care of each other, we need each other".
The instances of my mother's meanness and nastiness have declined dramatically. Today, she is more like the sweet person I always knew.
I believe the combination of touch, positive reinforcement, the calmness in my voice, and the smile did the trick. It really wasn't hard to do. I did need a lot of practice on the emotional side. I had to get control of my emotions. I had to learn to meet meanness with Kindness.
On the other hand, the words came easy because I meant and believed every word I said.
Over time I learned how to communicate in a new, different, effective way. This is pleasing to me, and makes me feel happy.
I relearned something I already learned a long time ago. You get more with sugar than you do with vinegar.
I guess you could say, I became a better person along the way.
I could thank Alzheimer's for this. I won't.
Thank you, Dotty.
Don't be afraid to try it. I'm confident it will change your life.
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Bob DeMarco is the Founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room (ARR). Bob is a recognized expert, writer, speaker, and educator in the Alzheimer's and Dementia Community worldwide.
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