Any medical affliction that may lead to incapacitation or death creates deep fear in humans. Researchers rush to study the causes of an ailment in order to expeditiously find treatments or cures. Meanwhile, helpless sufferers, their families and the general public resort to believing non-research based myths about the disease that add emotional distress, fear and needless suffering for all. Currently, dementia is one of the most dreaded and misunderstood illnesses.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is a disease that attacks the brain. It is the most common form of dementia.” It progresses in three stages: an early stage with few symptoms, a middle stage with mild impairment and a final stage which requires full time, around- the-clock assistance. Those who suffer from severe memory loss are sometimes referred to as ‘demented’. This label is inaccurate, demeaning, humiliating and insensitive.
Dr. Barry Reisberg of New York University, lists the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease in seven stages: 1. No impairment. 2. Very mild decline in which the individual may do well on memory tests and is unlikely to be detected by physicians and loved ones. 3. Mild Decline where memory performance on cognitive tests is detected by symptoms such as; finding the right word, remembering names of new acquaintances and being challenged by planning and organizing. 4. Moderate Decline: Difficulties with simple arithmetic, life histories, short term memories and inability to manage finances and pay bills. 5. Significant confusion, inability to recall own phone number and difficulty dressing appropriately. 6. Major need for assistance with toileting and bathing, loss of recalling personal history, wandering. 7. Nearing death.
Misunderstood diseases also cause some people to shun the afflicted individual due to their own discomfort. Avoiding a human being, especially a formerly dear friend due to his/her medical affliction is insensitive, unkind and even cruel. The discomfort one feels about relating to a person living with dementia is natural but needs to be managed with kindness, compassion and sensitivity.
Dementia is not a contagious disease and thus does not physically threaten the health and wellbeing of others. It does challenge you to alter your former level of interaction by concentrating on giving attention even when reciprocity is not forthcoming.
Another common misconception about dementia is that the person living with this condition is also emotionally impaired. The capacity to love, enjoy, appreciate and be grateful is often intact even when the person with Dementia is less able to express it as he/she has previously done. Receiving love enhances all human beings since it validates our worthiness and lovability.
Be a kind and compassionate friend to a person with Dementia:
- Accept that Dementia is a cruel medical disease that shatters the afflicted person’s life.
- Remember that being cared about bolsters one’s sense of worthiness, which may improve resiliency.
- Remind yourself that it is NOT a contagious disease. Being a good friend enhances you and elevates the patient’s mood.
- Be kind, considerate, and trust that love is a magical soother.