Alzheimer's blog

They'll never forget how you make them feel

By Angela Lunde December 14, 2010

Recently, Amy wrote that she cares for her father who has Alzheimer's. Although Amy's mother has passed away, Amy's father doesn't understand why his wife isn't around. He continually asks, "Have you seen mom?" Amy shared that she has to tell him every time that she's gone. "For my Dad it's like he's losing her over and over," Amy wrote.

Although Amy's father may not be cognitively aware of the loss, he does sense that something isn't right. Yet, as Amy points out, telling him each time that his wife has died is like hearing it for the first time for her father. Consequently, he feels profound sadness, probably confusion, or even anger, over and over again.

If Amy's father was able to retain the information that his wife had died, then of course he would need to be told. However, when we accept that Alzheimer's is a disease of profound memory loss, we can come to appreciate that repeating information that only elicits painful emotions may be unnecessary.

Although I completely understand Amy's desire to talk honestly with her father, I'm an advocate for validating the feelings of loss in a person with Alzheimer's without instigating further pain or grief.

An alternative way of responding in Amy's situation could be something like this: "Dad, I can tell you are worried." This statement validates his emotions. "Mom has been a wonderful wife and mom! Dad, I remember the time mom (insert a good memory, funny story ...)."

These words begin to shift the emotion from feeling worried to feeling understood, thus shifting her father's attention to happier times. Amy and her father may now be able to engage in an enjoyable conversation about the past.

An interesting study on emotions in persons with memory loss was conducted at the University of Iowa and published earlier this year in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

Individuals with memory loss watched clips of both happy and sad movies. Although the participants couldn't recall even one detail about what they had watched, they each retained the emotions elicited by the clips.

Happy movies left lingering happy emotions in the persons with memory loss and sad movies left them feeling sad long after the movie was over.

During the holidays, you might wonder if it really matters whether you visit someone with Alzheimer's since the person will forget you were there. This study underscores that while the visit may be forgotten almost immediately, the emotions created by the visit may stay behind long after you've left.

Amy, may you and your father find comfort and pleasure in your times together.

"They may forget what you said, they may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou

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Dec. 14, 2010