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When a family member, friend, or acquaintance suffers from a stroke or a heart attack, cancer or a fall, we rally around and help them recover and manage as best we can. But when Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia strikes, we flee. We are afraid. We rationalize, telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do or that he or she doesn’t recognize us, doesn’t know where they are, etc., etc.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Up until the end, and in different ways and to varying degrees, people are still alive inside. They have interests, strengths, desires – and certainly have the ability to distinguish between the familiar and the strange, between pleasure and pain.

Providing help for those suffering Alzheimer’s Dementia

Modes of Communication

They may communicate through sounds or pictures or touch or behavior. If they do not communicate at all, it is likely because we do not understand their mode of communication or have the patience to work with them. Learning about which areas of the brain are under attack and how can guide us in communicating. Just as people whose left hemisphere has been attacked by a stroke retain the ability to process pictures of prosody (tone, tempo, the music of speech), on the right side of the brain, so do people losing language due to frontotemporal dementia. People with Alzheimer’s retain the ability to process music.

Stimulate, stimulate, stimulate.

Might they like to look at pictures of people they know? Of places they have been? Of beautiful scenery?

Might they like a visit from a pet?

What about flowers and plants? Favorite scents? Spices to perk up that institutional food? The type of food they grew up with – which probably isn’t on the menu?

Just the sound of a familiar voice can be comforting, whether talking about what is going on with the family or reading a favorite book.

So can a foot or hand massage or a back rub with a scented oil or cream.

Musical memory stays with us a long time. Perhaps it would be a good idea to bring a recording or music which is memorable for them, even creating a personal playlist (See the full length YouTube documentary, “Alive Inside” and google “Music and Memory.”)

Everyone has an internal life – and a need to be seen. Everyone needs to know that they matter.

Helping the caregiver of one suffering with Alzheimer’s Dementia

Practical ways to help those caregiving

Helping the caregiver is helping the person cared for. We can provide transportation, help with yard work, laundry or housework, take on shopping or bill paying. Those few hours here and there are hours that a caregiver simply does not have.

Spending a few hours as a companion or sitter can let the caregiver get out of the house, recharge and have more energy for the marathon of caregiving.

Spending a few hours educating ourselves and advocating for awareness, detection and research can provide moral support – and improve conditions for the day when it is our turn.

Terry Garrett is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is active in the Texas and Austin Bar Associations. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.

She assists families of people with special needs, people planning for the retirement years and people administering estates.


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