Age-related memory loss is disconcerting enough. Memory loss due to Alzheimer's or other dementia disorders is just plain devastating. And either is a source of heartbreak for seniors, their partners and spouses and their families.
Memory loss doesn't end relationships. An elder might not be able to remember all the good moments you've had together over the years, and might not be able to form new, lasting memories, but there are certainly good times still to be had.
Still, it's a difficult thing for seniors and their partners or caregivers to grapple with. So, today, with Valentine's Day approaching, let's talk about what families and seniors living in Cincinnati and elsewhere can do to keep love alive, even as memories fade.
Embrace the change
At present, the only way to treat advanced dementia and memory loss is through supportive care. There is no cure. There are no surefire ways to arrest or slow the progress of the disease. So, how can you preserve the relationships you care most about?
You need to accept that there's not much you can do. Accepting the lack of control frees you and your loved ones to concentrate on adjusting to changes as they occur.
Encourage your caregivers to also care for themselves
Dementia progressively robs people not only of their memories, but also of their self-control, their mobility and, at the end, their ability to fend for themselves in any way.
That places a lot of responsibility on the primary caregiver, or caregivers — responsibilities most willingly accept, but which can nonetheless be draining. All caregivers experience negative emotions at some point, so it's important to remind them to find safe outlets for venting those emotions.
A senior in the early stages of dementia can help by reminding his or her caregivers that love isn't dependent upon the care received, and encouraging them to seek out opportunities for respite care whenever they need it.
A partner or caregiver who feels supported, rested and mentally fresh will not only provide better care, but will be able to remain optimistic and emotionally available — key requirements for nourishing relationships — throughout the course of care.
Focus on the here and now
Physical touch. Smiles. Holding hands. Just being in the same room.
These are all examples of love languages that require no words, for which a person’s ability to understand them remains unaffected until all but the very last stages of dementia. If you know which ones your elder has always responded to, you'll be able to communicate your love to them, and vice versa.
So, be present for your loved one. Rely on your years of experience together to guide your remaining time and show you how to keep the lines of communication open. Don't plan too much for the future and don't dwell on the past; focus entirely on the moment at hand.
Listen to music or look at art together
Books, movies, conversations — all these require the ability to keep track of a narrative, and they're thus not ideal activities for spending time with a loved one who has dementia.
But activities like listening to music, looking at art, or making art don't require organized thought. They're activities that take place in the moment and only in the moment.
We already know that music therapy and art therapy can help seniors with dementia to focus their thoughts, unlock memories, and reduce behavioral outbursts. You might try incorporating them into the time you spend with your loved one.
Love stays alive if at least one party remembers
If your partner can't remember your relationship, remember for the both of you. And we don't say that to sound trite; we know that this experience is extraordinarily difficult for the both of you.
Dementia will rob your loved one of memories of your relationship. But you can keep the relationship alive in your own memory. Regardless of whether your partner or relative can remember your love, he or she can still feel it.
Want to learn more about the 5 love languages and how they pertain to dementia caregiving?
If you’re fortunate, you have a ticket for our Refresh Your Soul positive aging conference on March 12, at Xavier University's Cintas Center, where keynote speaker Dr. Gary Chapman will speak to us about effective strategies for communicating and gracefully receiving love throughout the caregiving relationship.
If you didn’t get a ticket to Refresh Your Soul, keep watching our blog posts for more from Dr. Gary Chapman. We’re working to find a way to share his presentation after March 12!