From my own personal experience, having to care for a close relative with dementia can be quite a traumatic and very frustrating experience.
When my father’s condition began to decline rapidly a few years ago, I was at loss, not knowing how to communicate with him. Sadly, it was almost a relief when he passed away, and finally escaped from his mental prison of depression, misery, and paranoia.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by a progressive shrinkage of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, resulting in severe memory loss, learning difficulties, and concentration. As the disease progresses, everyday simple tasks become increasingly difficult to perform, which leads to severe anxiety, depression, stress and insomnia.
In coming months, I will explore a remarkable method that has brought peace and contentment to so many affected people and their families without the use of medications.
Recently, I discovered a wonderful book by Oliver James called Contented Dementia, which I wished I had read a lot earlier. It describes the story of Penny Garner, a British housewife whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Through trial and error, she discovered a new form of communication that was successful in alleviating her mother’s feelings of anxiety and she was able to keep her reasonably happy until the end.
Using her personal experience, she became involved with elderly patients at her local community hospital where she encouraged them to relive their old memories, and to create an imaginary world where their past became the foundation for a new reality.
Her unique approach was so effective it was endorsed by The Royal College of Nursing Evaluation. Today, her charity organisation SPECAL (Specialised Early Care for Alzheimer’s) has been teaching her unique method to carers and nursing staff for several decades with great success.
Since Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible medical condition, the therapeutic goal of this new approach is to make the patient’s final years as peaceful, dignified and enjoyable as possible.
Penny’s method is based on the basic principle that the only difference between a person suffering from dementia and anybody else is their inability to retain new information, since their long-term memory is not affected.
As she explains,” In the absence of recent information, people with dementia are liable to interpret what is happening around them as a situation from the past.”
She believes that if one can develop a way of communicating which doesn’t require the patients to use their short-term memory, most of their problems will disappear.
Penny Garner uses a photo album as an analogy for our memory.
Each picture in the book represents an individual episode from our life, with the latest pages illustrating the more recent events and the ones at the beginning illustrating the earliest, going back to our childhood.
This personal album is fundamental to our sense of identity and wellbeing.
Each photo, or memory, is also associated with both a visual recollection of the episode, and an emotion attached to it.
When we suffer from dementia and a new event takes place, the visual recollection doesn’t occur anymore, and only the emotion of the event gets recorded. As the disease progresses, more and more blank photos start to appear on the memory album.
We can see a bag full of groceries on the kitchen table, but we don’t understand how it got there, because our recent trip to the supermarket didn’t get recorded in the brain. As the condition progressively worsens, more and more events don’t get recorded. This creates a feeling of intense stress, since we can no longer understand what’s happening in our lives.
In order to make sense to what ‘s happening around us, we automatically go back to what we can remember. Our long-term memory is stored in a different part of the brain that hasn’t been affected by the disease, so we use these moments from the past to make sense of what we are.
Unfortunately, we keep running into difficulties because everybody else is living in the present world.
The common medical practice is to give patients very strong anti-psychotic drugs to control their “irrational” behaviour. So their brain becomes numb, they sit all day staring at the walls, lose their will to live, gradually wither and die shortly after.
This was confirmed by a British medical study which assessed dementia sufferers who were given these drugs, vs a control group who were given placebos. After three years, 60% of the placebo group was still alive, against 28% in the medicated group.
In my next article, I will explain how we can take the option of going down memory lane together with our dementia clients to create a new reality, which makes sense to them. Helping them reach the end of their life journey in contentment, free of stress and anxiety is the best gift we can give them.
As this is the last article by Olivier that will appear on our website as the magazine is now closing, we would like to thank him for his many years of original, thought provoking and often very compassionate content that we know has enriched the lives of a great many readers. His long commitment to NOVA has been a gift we have been very privileged to share with you.
For his future articles on new approaches to dementia and other holistic health issues please contact him via his website at www.olejusacupuncture.com
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com