How to Maintain an Emotional Connection to Someone with Alzheimer’s

Geri Taylor (69) had recently retired from her job in health administration, when she started noticing changes in herself. For some time, she had experienced forgetfulness at work. For instance, when she was leading a staff meeting, she realized she had no idea what she was talking about. She got past the episode by quickly handing off the meeting to a colleague.

Certain mundane tasks stumped Geri, such as how to pull up her blinds and how to navigate the NYC subway, when she previously got off at the same stop every day. Her memory got so bad that at one point, she didn’t recognize her own face in the mirror.

Geri confided her fears to her husband, Jim, and made an appointment with a neurologist. The doctor listened to her symptoms, took blood, and gave her a standard cognitive test. She was asked to count backward from 100 in intervals of seven. She had to say the phrase “No ifs, ands, or buts.” He asked her to remember three common words; when he called for them later, she knew only one. That day, Geri was given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a common precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. She understood it was indicative of what would come—Alzheimer’s had affected her father, an aunt, and a cousin. So, she had long suspected it would eventually find her.

Alzheimer’s is degenerative and incurable, and it affects nearly 44 million people worldwide. People live with it for eight to ten years on average, though some last for 20 years. In Geri’s health-care career, she had seen Alzheimer’s in action. Now she would live it.

How Most People Handle an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Those who learn they have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia may suffer from depression. They may try to hide their symptoms and retreat from their everyday life. But Geri chose to handle Alzheimer’s differently, with defiance and as a new beginning.

Her belief system was optimism. She never cried. Depression, she knew, would lead her down a path she didn’t want to visit and held nothing good for her. Instead, the disease made her want to live life to the fullest. She vowed to accelerate her longtime interest in photography, and to see friends more often. She aimed to live the most fulfilling days possible at what could’ve been the bleakest time in her life.

How Her Family Handled It

When Geri told her family about her diagnosis, some accepted the news, while others quibbled. At the same time as Geri was maintaining her optimism and keeping her chin up, her circle of friends and relatives were trying to hold on tightly to the bond they once had. But, is this possible and if so, how?

Maintaining an Emotional Connection to Someone with Alzheimer’s

According to Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, it is possible to have intimacy and a meaningful connection with someone who has Alzheimer’s. She believes that “(h)uman connection, dignity, love, and worthiness transcends your ability to speak, remember, and think.”

Here are some of Genova’s suggestions to connect with your loved one who has Alzheimer’s, as Geri’s family tried to do:

– Adapt in order to stay connected. One approach is to join the person with Alzheimer’s in their reality. Resist the urge to correct factual errors and use the classic improv technique: “yes, and…” instead. If a person tells you they are waiting for their mother and you know their mother died twenty years ago, telling them the truth will make them experience the grief and loss again. Instead, as an example, Genova suggests saying, “Yes, and I’ll wait with you. I hear your mother is a great cook.” This can start a conversation and help forge a meaningful connection with someone whose short term memory is affected by Alzheimer’s.

– Focus on feelings: A person with Alzheimer’s may forget the content of a conversation, but they can remember how they feel for hours. Every person, whether or not they suffer from Alzheimer’s, feels emotion with their bodies — in their heart rates, their stomachs, and their hands. Genova describes how this approach worked with her grandmother. Her grandmother had no idea who Genova was, yet she trusted her because she knew Genova loved her and she could feel that love. Always understand that love is a feeling, not a memory.

– Think about connections we make with babies: For those who may be skeptical that a satisfying relationship can be built without memory, language, or cognition, Genova points to the connections we make with babies. “If you have a six-month-old, this child only has six months worth of memory available to him or her and no language yet, and yet can you tell if that six-month-old feels loved? Absolutely.”

Wondering if you should visit a loved one with Alzheimer’s, and the best way to make the most of your visit? Read our article, “Does it Matter Whether You Visit a Loved One with Alzheimer’s?” for more helpful hints.

Medicaid Asset Protection

Persons with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At The Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 540-479-143
Rockville Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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