This post includes an excerpt from chapter 3, which comprehensively looks at the the step in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease where communication difficulties arise. It discusses the kinds of communication problems that arise and how we as caregivers can help our loved ones bridge those gaps.
Excerpt “Chapter 3: “’Don’t Think I Know What to Read or Write or Say'”
“As more cells die, the functions that these areas of the brain control become more profoundly affected. Language function is controlled in a deeper portion of the temporal lobe, so in the case of just Alzheimer’s Disease, communication problems might not show up for a while.
However, if our loved ones are suffering from other dementias, such as vascular dementia which causes clusters of cell death through the brain, even the innermost parts, because of a stroke or chronic small-vessel ischemia (usually the result of mini-strokes or transient ischemic attacks, also known as TIA’s), then communication problems may occur sooner.
Regardless of how long it takes, communication problems are the third definitive step in the journey, whether it’s a short step or a longer step.
Communication problems in dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease include fall under the general term of aphasia.”
This post will discuss the next three most common stressors – communication, vision, and hearing – that our loved ones suffering with these diseases experience and practical, common-sense ways that we as caregivers can recognize them, address them, and minimize or manage them as a source of stress.
It is important to say at the outset that the stressors we’ll be discussing today require some creative solutions taking the guidelines listed here because of the integral link that each of these, standing alone without prior existence (which we’ll also look at) to the development and progression of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, has to each other and to the diminishing functioning of the brain itself.
The first stressor we’ll discuss is communication. Issues with communication are often among the first signs of cognitive impairment with our loved ones and those issues become more pronounced as dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease progress. Common manifestations of early communication problems include:
Extensive searching for words when speaking
Misidentifying common objects (e.g., calling a pen a knife or a boy a dog) both verbally and in writing
Omitting words both verbally and in writing
Speaking and writing sentences or phrases that don’t make sense
Not totally comprehending or misunderstanding what is being heard or read
As the diseases progress, so do the communication problems, often resulting in a total inability to communicate verbally. Losing the ability to read seems to occur after this, but comprehension of what is being read generally precedes the inability to recognize written words.
Losing the ability to communicate – to express oneself in an understandable way, to participate in interactive dialogue, to understand the meaning of words – is frustrating and isolating for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease (it’s also frustrating and sad for us as caregivers because we so badly want to find a way to open that door wide open again), and the result of that frustration and isolation creates stress in our loved ones.
While we as caregivers may not be able to completely eliminate the stressor of communication, there are things that we can do to minimize the stress associated with it.
In the early stages, we can exercise patience in listening. This is easier said than done, but it is vital because it shows that we are interested in and care about what our loved ones are trying to communicate, instead of cutting them off because they’re taking a long time and faltering, and either completing what we think they’re trying to communicate, often erroneously, or simply dismissing them by interrupting them and saying what we want to say.
Here are a few strategies for keeping the lines of communication open for as long as possible and minimizing the stress associated with it:
Break complex ideas and tasks down into simple, understandable steps that are easy to comprehend and walk through the idea or process one step at a time. Repeating this step-by-step approach using consistent language each time, being a guide for our loved ones with each step, and going through each step at their pace will establish a routine of habits that eliminates much of the stress associated with what is essentially information overload for our loved ones.
Limit the number of options that our loved ones are presented with and make the options concrete. An example of how this would look is instead of asking “What do you want for dinner?,” ask “Do you want baked chicken or roast beef for dinner?”
For those situations where it applies, ask “yes” and “no” questions. (A caveat may be that as dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease progress, “yes” and “no” will get flipped around, so they may become an unreliable way to communicate.)
Use gestures, such as the motions of washing hands, brushing teeth, drinking something, or eating something.
For difficulties finding the right words, often times the easiest thing is to ask our loved ones to point to what they are talking about.
For sentences or phrases that don’t make sense, we should listen for meaningful words or ideas and then take those and ask questions about them to gain understanding into what our loved ones are trying to communicate.
For misunderstandings of what is being heard or read, it’s important for us to stay calm and not get defensive or reprimandingly corrective, because that will escalate our loved ones’ stress in a heartbeat. The easiest way I found to minimize this aspect of communication was to repeat what Mama had said and then ask her why she believed that or thought that. Once I gave her the opportunity to express herself and be heard, then I could find ways to gently steer her toward an accurate understanding and that eliminated both the stress of the immediate situation as well as the stress of the misunderstanding.
In cases where our loved ones are completely nonverbal, stress can be minimized by reading their nonverbal language (discomfort, pain, fatigue, etc. ) and by anticipating their needs (bathroom, food, drink, etc.).
Hearing and vision problems are often stressors for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
We discussed in detail many of the vision problems associated with these diseases in “‘I See Dead People’ – Vision, Perception, and Hallucinations in Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementias,” and how those vision problems (and the vision problems normally associated with the aging process) can be proportionately more severe as neurological damage increases, and we discussed ways to eliminate and minimize the stress related to those problems, so I encourage everyone to go back and read that.
Hearing is directly tied to neurological functioning as well, so as dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease progress in our loved ones, even those with normal hearing will experience auditory changes. For our loved ones with impaired hearing already, these changes are often complicated and compounded by the existing hearing loss.
Most auditory changes are in the form of auditory hallucinations – hearing someone who isn’t there – or auditory misperceptions – believing they heard something said that wasn’t said or believing they heard words said a certain way.
This causes stress in our loved ones, mostly because – and neither I nor anyone else explain definitively why this is the case – what they believe they’ve heard is negative, dismissive, rejecting, and abandoning and the fear associated with these possibilities opens their stress flood gates.
This stressor is manifested by our loved ones in the forms of verbal anger and, at times, physical anger, extreme agitation, and extreme restlessness.
The keys to managing this stressor – the best outcome is to minimize it, because since it is the product of fear of losing the most basic of human needs, it’s virtually impossible to avoid or eliminate entirely – lie with us as caregivers.
We must manage our emotions very, very carefully in both our speech and our actions, and this is one of our toughest battles in this journey with our loved ones.
Projecting gentleness, kindness, tenderness, patience, and equanamity at all times, whether we are experiencing any of those at the moment or not, is critical to minimizing this stressor for our loved ones who are suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The more we can do this consistently, the more reassurance our loved ones will have that nothing negative is coming from us and that we will not dismiss them, we will not reject them, and we will not abandon them and the less fear (i.e., stress) our loved ones will experience.
Here are some guidelines on how to accomplish this:
We respond in a way that lets our loved ones know that we understand they’re concerned or afraid. Examples would be, “I know this is upsetting for you” or “I know this is scary for you.”
We reassure our loved ones that we’re in their corner. Examples would be “I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you,” or “I’ll take care of you.”
We redirect our loved ones’ attention to something else that’s positive, if possible (this sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t always happen in reality – sometimes we just have to stop at reassurance, walk away for a little while, and be sure to come back and try again later, especially if our loved ones are so worked up that there’s no calming them down nor persuading them that we’re the “good guys”).
In our next and last post in this series on stressors for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will look at how physical health can be a stressor and how we as caregivers can minimize and eliminate, within certain parameters, the associated stress for our loved ones.