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Published February 22, 2014, 10:30 PM

Minding Our Elders: People with dementia sensitive to caregivers' moods, voices

Dear Carol: I’m a longtime reader and know that you’ve addressed this issue before, but now it affects my family. I’m hoping that my sister will see this letter and respect your opinion.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: I’m a longtime reader and know that you’ve addressed this issue before, but now it affects my family. I’m hoping that my sister will see this letter and respect your opinion.

Our mother is in a nursing home because of late stage dementia. I spend a lot of time with Mom and my sister sometimes joins us. My sister thinks that Mom’s isn’t really “there” anymore so when she comes to visit she spends her time venting to me about whatever is bothering her.

My sister’s voice gets shrill when she’s upset and she introduces tension in the room. I try to explain that angry sounding voices and tension bother mom, but she just gets mad at me and says I’m a know-it-all. Would you please write more on this topic?

– Tammy

Dear Tammy: You are completely right about your mom and her ability to pick up on tone of voice, volume and tension in the room. It’s well known that soothing voices, movements and touch can go a long way to help calm people with dementia and that the reverse will generally upset them. Sometimes it helps to have a professional educate a family member so the sibling dynamic is removed, so you could ask the nursing home social worker for help. Perhaps the social worker could join the two of you for an informal chat so that your sister doesn’t feel singled out.

Basic research into Alzheimer’s disease through the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org and the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) at www.alzfdn.org can help many people understand that their behavior around people with dementia is critical. It does seem that if your sister hasn’t done basic research yet, she’s not likely to start now. Perhaps, though, she may be convinced by the social worker to read one short piece on the AFA website about the effect that music has on people with dementia. In my view, this is a shortcut that could help your sister understand how much environment means to people even in the latest stages of Alzheimer’s.

The AFA has this to say about music:

“Music has power–especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.

When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.

This happens because rhythmic and other… responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory…cues.”

I’m sure that your sister is suffering as much as you are over what’s happening to your mom, but unlike you, she is letting her frustration and anger over the disease overshadow her efforts to help. I hope that she can be convinced to go to the AFA website for a more complete explanation of music therapy and how sensitive to environment people with dementia can be. This, in turn, may strengthen her desire to explore the site further information. Good luck.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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