Jul 12, 2012

Seeing the Whole Person with Dementia

When you look for alternative ways to communicate with a person who is deeply forgetful, you are in effect confirming their wholeness as a individual, and counteracting the automatic loss of self esteem one suffers when one see’s oneself as "less than" others.

By Carole B. Larkin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Seeing the Whole Person with Dementia
“Guess what -- you are not your brain. You may think you're your brain. You're not your brain just as much as you're not your stomach.

When you're hungry, you feel hunger in your stomach and you say, "I need to eat."”

This quote of Dr. Rudy Tanzi’s from the article “What is the Relationship between the Brain and the Soul?” struck a chord with in me.


I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the dentist’s chair and they are doing something in my mouth (cleaning the teeth, putting on a crown, etc…) the rest of my body seems to melt away and I feel that all there is to me is my teeth. That’s my whole focus at that moment probably because it’s the dentist’s whole focus at the moment.

The same thing happens at my gynecologists office (you know what I mean ladies!) I mean, intellectually I know that there is more to me than just the area that’s being concentrated on, but it feels like I’m really nothing but a big xxx (fill in the body part as you need to).

In Alzheimer’s and other dementias the body part under examination is our brain. 


Now, intellectually we know that our brain controls everything in our body. Right? That’s where Dr. Tanzi’s statement “You may think you’re your brain” relates. 


If you think that all there is to you is your brain, with Alzheimer’s or another dementia all you can see is “LOSS” in yourself or in the person you are caring for. Immediately you are mired in the negative mindset, which will eventually lead you to negative emotions such as anger and frustration. 


As a caregiver negative emotions in relation to the person with the disease will be telegraphed to them, and they will mirror your negative emotions back to you. Now you are caught up in the downward spiral of pain and resentment which eventually will land both you and your loved one in the mental sewer of life. Phew! That Stinks!

Conversely, if you view yourself or the person with Alzheimer’s or another dementia as MORE THAN just your brain than you can begin to think in terms other than “LOSS”.

You can think of the person having other attributes to relate to, other than just memory or thought process. That opens up the door to more POSITIVE ways of viewing your loved one and brings more opportunities to see them as a whole person.

Seeing them as a whole person with a disease affecting one part of their body (the brain) is completely opposite of seeing them as a disease with a person attached to the disease, as sort of an afterthought.

Viewing them as a whole person gives you the chance to relate to them in other ways than just through their brain (logic, reason, memory, etc…) you can communicate through their senses (touch) and through their emotions (warmth, friendliness, love, etc…).

When you look for alternative ways to communicate with them, you are in effect confirming their wholeness as a individual, and counteracting the automatic loss of self esteem one suffers when one see’s oneself as “less than” others. That is the start of an upward spiral of togetherness and good feelings between the person with dementia and you (the caregiver).

You as caregiver have the tools to change your view of the person with dementia by practicing seeing them as a whole person, not just as a diseased brain.

I believe Bob refers to this by using the term “more there”. Judy Berry and Richard Taylor refer to this in their writings as well. Finding and practicing using this view of the person will inevitably result in more happy moments for both of you.

Carole Larkin MA,CMC,CAEd,QDCS,EICS,
is a Geriatric Care Manager who specializes in helping families with Alzheimer’s and related dementias issues. She also trains caregivers in home care companies, assisted livings, memory care communities, and nursing homes in dementia specific techniques for best care of dementia sufferers. ThirdAge Services LLC, is located in Dallas, TX.

Original content Carole Larkin, the Alzheimer's Reading Room