Guest Columns

Maintaining positive emotions with the elderly

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Sarah Jennings
Sarah Jennings
Working closely with an elderly person will happen to nearly every person in their lifetime. Whether your profession is caring for them or if you have family that needs your help to care for them, having a basic understanding of how diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia affect the aging brain will keep relationships positive.

Understanding Alzheimer's

Knowing how the disease tackles the brain and nervous system will help you know how to help the one who suffers from it the most. The cause of Alzheimer's is still unknown, although there are many theories out there. Science is finding many common denominators like vitamin and mineral deficiencies and what is called “neurotoxicity”, where excess amounts of metals like Mercury, Aluminum and even overabundances of MSG have been consistently found in the brains of deceased sufferers of the disease. What they have also found is that it appears that the main culprits are “Neurofibrillary Tangles” (or NFTs) are masses of protein filaments that invade the brain and break up cognitive and other normal functions of the brain, resulting in motor skill loss, memory loss, and the inability to speak. Eventually enough of these tangles disrupt enough processes that the patient dies. The disease affects the Parietal and Occipital lobes, the Hippocampus, the Frontal Lobe, and the Anterior and Medial Temporal Lobes. Knowing what areas are mostly attacked in the brain will help you know how to work with your patient.

  • Parietal and Occipital Lobes: This area is responsible for how we see, store and recall information. Every day, we see millions of things and our eyes send them to our brain which converts it into information it can store. When we see that item again in the future, our brain can reference it and call it forward so we know we have seen it before. This is referred to as a “cognitive map” or even a “mind map”. When caring for a person who is affected by the loss of this ability, you need to allow them to voice how they “see” it. Let them speak and don't tell them what they should be experiencing. Act with love and simply pay close attention to what things they are able to recall and what they are not.
  • Hippocampus: When this area of the brain is deteriorating, your patient will simply exist in the present. They no longer know of a past or a future. Trying to force them to remember will only cause frustration and negative behavior. Reduce the use of the word “no” when directed at them. They are not like a little child where it will correct what they said or did. They are grown-ups and they know it. Helping them not be afraid of what is happening to them by just living where they do is the best and most courageous thing you can do. Remember, it will not help to reinvent their reality.
  • Frontal Lobe: This lobe is a very functional part of the brain and is affected in several ways. Your patient loses their normal social behavior, impulse control, motor functions, and self-placating. Basically, this controls a lot of you. So helping your patient or loved one with activities like brain games, things that require hand eye coordination like Domino type of games, and I Spy walks in the park will help them retain some of the information still stored and not yet lost. Letting them do for themselves will help keep them moving, but it also helps establish a pattern, a routine that will make their life easier. Keeping every day, normal activities familiar is crucial. Keep in mind that you are not as able to modify their actions and behaviors by speaking to them, but your body language and your tone of voice will affect them in a positive way. Stay happy and not negative. You will only promote negativity to come from them.
  • Anterior and Medial Temporal Lobes: Your ability to speak resides here. Your very detailed memories are here as well. Purposely modify your patient's way of life so they can understand it and have hope of storing it for later use. Using things that are personal to them or their favorite music, even physical support like hugs or holding their hand will help them connect to you, remember you. Have story time where they talk about a memory they have. If you know about things they have done, bring them up and see if they can tell you the history. Keep it fresh in their mind by exercising it.

There are ways to stall the progress of Alzheimer's and dementia, no way to stop it, but knowing what is going on in the brain will help you care for them and increase their quality of life. In order to be a companion, you need to understand the world they live in. It changes every day.

Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes for Brookdale Assisted Living..

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Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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