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Care that can transform the lives of dementia sufferers and their carers

© Glowimages – model used for illustrative purposes
© Glowimages – model used for illustrative purposes
The numbers of over 80s with dementia in Australia may be set to fall (currently stats stand at 25%). A new study has found that dementia rates among people 65 and older in the UK have plummeted by 25 percent over the past two decades, a trend that researchers say is probably occurring across developed countries and is linked to a healthier and better educated population.

These findings dispute the alarming predictions by advocacy groups and some public health officials of escalating numbers of dementia sufferers, as baby boomers age.

In tandem with this progress there is also good news for the hundreds of thousands of dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families around the world at the moment. Health care workers and researchers are discovering that innovative therapies based on compassionate care and love are “reaching” them in ways unheard of previously.

“Each time we approach a deeply forgetful person with a kind tone of voice, a reassuring facial expression, and call them by name with a smile we are participating in an intervention that is as significant as any biotechnical one of which I am aware”, writes Prof Stephen Post, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, USA. He continues, “Carers are the beacons of hope to be acknowledged and celebrated in their depth of commitment …. [their] daily small actions done with great love”.

He prefers to use the kinder term “deeply forgetful” for someone being diagnosed as having dementia or Alzheimer’s. He also emphasises the need for compassionate care as we face a world intent on the dehumanisation of medical and psychiatric care, and stresses the importance of treating the deeply forgetful with dignity, helping to reveal their value to them by providing attention, concern and tenderness.

At the Compassion, Spirituality and Health Conference held in Adelaide in July, Post told delegates that “there is not one person who can’t be reached on a spiritual level”. He gave the example of a man who had been in care for ten years. A moving YouTube video shows the elderly man who is unable to recognise his daughter being roused enough to engage in conversation after being given his loved music to listen to on an iPod (see www.musicandmemory.org).

Neurologist Oliver Sacks MD explains: “Henry, who is normally mute and unable to answer the simplest “yes” and “no” questions’ [becomes] quite voluble… so in some sense Henry is restored to himself, he has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music.”

When I spoke with him at the conference, Prof Post called such deep change “a resurrection of a sort for the deeply forgetful”, as we connect with them on a spiritual level.

Such thought-provoking results provide a growing body of evidence that we should never give up on an individual. Compassionately fostering spiritual pursuits like music, art and poetry appreciation, introducing comedy and brain training activities, as well as interacting with pets produce encouraging results.

Other meaningful activities include fostering spirituality, meditation and prayer. In 2005 researchers concluded that adopting a spiritual or religious lifestyle slows down the progress of Alzheimer’s. One woman’s inspiring journey of gaining a diviner sense of her identity saw her slowly regaining cognitive functions she had been losing, until her doctor finally reversed the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Encouraging a greater appreciation for the enduring, spiritual “self” and creating a culture of awareness, hope and compassion for both patient and caregiver is bringing, if not a complete cure at this stage, significant help and healing to many dealing with dementia, and possibly a much brighter future on the horizon.

This Carers’ Week let’s celebrate the care that brings comfort and deep change.

Kay Stroud writes about the connection between thought and health, and the role that spirituality can play. You can contact her at neaustralia@compub.org

Topics:  alzheimer's carers compassion dementia kay stroud national carers week spirituality


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