NEW RICHMOND -- Recently a group that included area ministers, lay clergy and others gathered to learn how to reach out and help those living with dementia and memory loss and their caregivers.
The daylong workshop was held at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond. Sharing their personal as well as professional experience with individuals and families living with dementia were Nancy Abrahamson, dementia care specialist for St. Croix County, Vicki Bolton, pastoral caregiver for United Methodist Church in Hudson, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Jeffers Ramstad, pastor of United Methodist in Hudson and the Rev. Tom Johnson, chaplain for Christian Community Homes.
The message was similar from all the presenters. Finding a way to connect with those living with dementia is key to communication and understanding.
Abrahamson was involved in starting the first memory care unit in Minnesota more than 30 years ago. She has been working with families dealing with dementia in St. Croix County for the past 15 years.
She began by talking about all the things that can look like dementia but are not, particularly with seniors. Vitamin deficiency and medications as well as the overuse of alcohol can have side effects and can interact in ways that can cause confusion, depression and more.
Medical conditions like tumors, lesions, sinus and urinary tract infections, high or low blood pressure and poor nutrition and dehydration can all be culprits.
“That’s why it is so important to see a doctor to evaluate what’s going on and find solutions where possible. Don’t assume what’s going on; investigate,” Abrahamson said.
When the issue is dementia, it can be difficult for many to talk about according to Abrahamson, for both the individual dealing with it and their family.
“The brain is cheating them out of their normal functioning and they don’t know how to interpret the little clues they might be getting,” said Abrahamson.
Abrahamson stresses that dementia is a condition that does not “take everything all at once” and even in the advanced stages, people have desired to connect and give back.
“Research has shown that the disease moves faster in those who are isolated or have limited contact with others. As it progresses, it isolates them further. But often they retain many of their skills—their long term memory, sense of humor and spirituality. These are areas where connections can still be made, where communication still happens,” she said.
Bolton explained the importance of “entering their reality.”
It’s not as easy as it may sound. Family and friends often feel the need to correct their loved one when it comes to who, what and where they are. She uses “therapeutic fibs” when necessary.
“If they ask for a deceased mother, say she’s in the garden and will be back soon. Try not to argue, rather redirect when they get stuck on something,” said Bolton
Bolton says listening without judgment and being present where the person with dementia can be difficult at first but has an important payoff.
“It is surprising what you can learn. Caregivers say they found out things they never knew about their loved one. Listen with your heart as well as your ears; listen with all your senses,” said Bolton
Bolton stresses making eye contact, approaching them from the front and stating your name, wearing a name tag that identifies where you are from and to continue talking even when they don’t.
“There is great power in touch. Hands are a tool in communication, can comfort and reassure. They hear the warmth in your voice when you use their name. And compliment, compliment, compliment. From childhood to death, we all love and respond to compliments. It all builds trust and confidence in you,” Bolton said.
Jeffers Ramstad has been working in the field of ministry to those with dementia and their caregivers for a long time. She began with a simple statement.
“You are not your diagnosis; you live with your diagnosis,” said Jeffers Ramstad.
She presented a guide to ministering to those with dementia and their family and caregivers developed by Bishop Kenneth L. Carder. Content included discussion of dementia care as a new vocation, how to identify and serve those experiencing dementia, how to include in the church family and how to develop worship suited to their needs.
“Every person is a viable member of the household of faith,” said Jeffers Ramstad.
She notes that as dementia changes someone in a congregation, they do not need just to be looked after. But as a new
friend who will teach you new lessons.
For more information about dementia and area services contact Abrahamson at the Adult and Disabilities Resource Center at 715-381-4411.
Ramstad and Bolton can be reached at United Methodist Church at 715-386-3921.