Monthly Blog Archives: April 2017

Family drama played out as adults

Siblings Spring 2017My siblings and I are together for a week. It’s a great big mix of fun and confusion. It’s as if we’re back at the dining room table in our childhood home, resuming the roles we played as children. Unresolved family issues simmer just below the laughter, ready to take center stage when the joking subsides.

I have always felt like the black sheep with my siblings but during this trip, I’ve learned that we each, in our own way, feel like “the odd one out.”

It’s not easy to come together as adults and deal with emotions that accompany diseases, aging or family caregiving. For many of us, navigating the rough waters of our childhood was challenging enough. I’ve worked through a lot of my childhood trauma, but still find it difficult to hold on to this new-found strength when in the company of my family of origin.

Our families are the first hierarchical institution we experience, the place where we feel most connected, but sometimes also where we feel most limited. Think about dinner times—where you sat and how you interacted with your family. That scene is recreated when we come together as adults to deal with heavy-duty life issues, oftentimes without the benefit of training. We simply use the limited skills we gained as children and clumsily apply them to adult situations.

I have leaned on the SANE Method™ once again, feeling supported by asking a friend to lunch, feeling appreciated by making time for walks in the woods, letting go of guilt by reminding myself that I’m doing enough, and feeling energized through getting enough rest. We can’t always have easy times with our families of origin, but we can have sanity, and that is in your hands.

Lost in a crowd of familiar faces

My dear friend Sylvia, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was very agitated when I visited her at the nursing home. She was sitting in her wheelchair, banging it against the nurse’s medication cart. As I approached her I heard the nurse address her like this, “Sylvia you’re missing a shoe.” That meant nothing to Sylvia.

Later on, my dad tried to tell my friend, “This is where you can set your water glass.” Sylvia looked blankly at him and held on to her glass.

loneliness in a crowd copyEven though my dad felt that he was clear in his explanation, at a certain stage of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers can no longer follow simple instructions. We also can’t expect them to take part in or to understand our conversations, especially in large groups.

Part of what I do through my speaking engagements is help people understand what it’s like to be with familiar faces, but still feel totally lost in everyday conversation.

The closest I have been to understanding how Alzheimer’s disease can impede communication was when I was on a semester abroad in Norway. I remember one such time where I was the one completely adrift in a crowd.

A friend invited me to a party where I met a number of his friends. My Norwegian language skills were good, but nowhere near good enough to keep up with the rapid-fire conversations that were happening all around me. I felt lost, confused and totally exhausted by the end of the evening.

To top it off, I took the wrong bus to get back to where I was staying. When I finally arrived at my apartment, I was in tears. My roommate greeted me with, “We’re only going to speak English and tomorrow I’m taking you to the American Lutheran Church.” That’s how she helped me regain my footing and feel connected again.

I offer three ways to help you stay connected with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease and struggles to communicate:

  • Connect with your eyes—stand or sit at the same level with your loved one and look them in the eyes. Look at them when you’re talking to others, even if they aren’t able to contribute. Let them know that you see them and that they are included.
  • Slow WAY down—speak clearly and in short phrases. Allow pauses in your sentences and space for them to respond. Their response may come out in “word salad,” but nod and acknowledge them; don’t correct them. If they have lost most of their ability to speak, refrain from asking them questions that require complex responses.
  • Use touch—if they can’t form sentences, include them in the conversation by holding their hand or sitting close to them.

If you’re able to shift how you interact with a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, you also take care of yourself. You stay SANE* in a challenging caregiving world.

*Supported, Appreciated, Not Guilty and Energized, explained in my new edition of The Unexpected Caregiver