Watching a loved one slip into oblivion can be painful to the point of despair. Yet Jolene Brackey, author of Creating Moments of Joy, says there’s another way to experience time with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Brackey’s work is based on her experiences as activity director for an Alzheimer’s special care unit, and she recently spoke at Garden View Care Centers in St. Louis to share her message that “it’s impossible to create a perfectly wonderful day, but you sure can create perfectly wonderful moments.”
LN: You’ve said you want to help people change the way they feel about what it means when a loved one has Alzheimer’s. How?
JB: People need to understand that with someone who has short-term memory loss, all we have is right now to create a shared moment. Although the person you’re visiting won’t remember exactly what you did or said, there’s a good feeling that can linger on. And consider this: If we make a mistake with a person who has dementia, we can try something different in five minutes. And we can keep doing things differently until the moment is better.
LN: And that’s a benefit you wouldn’t experience with other people.
JB: Exactly! Normally we remember for a lifetime when we feel someone did us wrong. With Alzheimer’s patients we get do-overs, which is a blessing. Yet it’s also a curse because when we do something well, we’d like them to remember—and that’s not going to happen. Also, we tend to have certain expectations of people we’ve known for a lifetime. That makes things difficult because when they do something they wouldn’t normally do, even if we correct them, they can’t change. They’re doing the best they can. The only person you can change is yourself.
LN: That must be a very hard thing for people to accept when they’re visiting a loved one who has dementia.
JB: Yes. We think if we correct them, they’ll get better, but it actually just causes more confusion. So our goal has to be to let go of these expectations and meet them where they are in this moment. Whatever they believe and feel in this moment is true. Go forward from that moment, not from an expectation of who they should be.
LN: When someone visits a loved one who has dementia, what are some things he or she can do to make for better moments?
JB: First, go without words. If you ask, What’d you have for lunch?, they can’t answer because they don’t remember. Instead of visiting with words, visit with things that trigger their memories. Take along an old photo to look at or share a favorite food. Always have something in your hands to give them. Find things they’ve loved for a long time—things that are ingrained and are part of them.
LN: What if the person you’re visiting just doesn’t seem to be responding? It can be frustrating, and you may feel like you’re not making any difference.
JB: There’s always someone in there, and they sense your presence. They can sense if you like being with them or if you feel uncomfortable. So bring something that also will make you feel comfortable. You might enjoy singing or playing an instrument or reading aloud. Your loved one is different than before, and you have to develop a different kind of relationship. Brackey recommends additional resources available through the Alzheimer’s Association, alz.org, and at her website, enhancedmoments.com.