How do people with dementia learn?

Dementia is progressive, irreversible, and ultimately fatal. It attacks all of our senses and abilities, but is best known as a disease that destroys our memory. Typically, it attacks short-term memory first, then begins to erode older memories.

Dementia attacks other mental functions as well, such as cognition, rational thinking skills, and perception of time and space. This makes it impossible for individuals living with dementia to learn by conventional methods.
But I believe our loved ones with dementia are still capable of learning, and I will try to illustrate this from my experience with my husband Albert, who died from dementia.

Albert was treated very badly by “the system.” He was kicked out of three assisted living facilities and Baker Acted twice, and in one case returned to me bruised and battered. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital for 12 weeks and held in four-point restraints for seven days in a local hospital!

Finally, a few months before his death, I found a memory care community that handled things quite differently. There, the staff practiced “hug therapy.” Every time Joan – the owner – walked into Albert’s room, she would smile, hold out her arms, and say, “Good morning, Mr. Albert!” After what Albert had been through, he trusted no one and showed no interest in hugging or being touched in any way.
But about the third day of Albert’s residence in this wonderful community, something surprising happened. When Joan walked into the room, Albert suddenly stood up and held out his arms! Albert’s relationship with the staff and other residents blossomed. His medications were discontinued and he spent his final days in peace and tranquility.

This was clearly a learning process, but how could a man so deeply damaged by dementia learn? I think the answer lies in understanding two small organs in our brain called the “amygdala,” which govern our emotions. The amygdala help us interpret and respond to the things we find both pleasing or painful. What is most wonderful about these organs is that they continue to function long after the rest of the brain has been ravaged by dementia.

Compassionate care is based on the principle that we can manage and provide better quality of life for our loved ones living with dementia through kindness, and understanding their needs by observing their behaviors. When we respond in a way that their amygdala tells them is safe, pleasurable, and trustworthy, they will respond in a positive way.

Communicating through positive emotions is the basis for all compassionate therapies, which include music therapy, pet therapy, hug therapy, and many others. Our loved ones with dementia will respond, not through a rational learning process, but through learning on an emotional level. This is the pathway to a better quality of life for both our care partners and their persons living with dementia.

Until next time remember: “We all deserve the Best”

Send your comments and stories to deb@coping.today


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