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Finding the Right Words

· Dementia Challenge,Alzheimers Disease,Perspective

As I stood at the kitchen stove, preparing an omelet for breakfast, my grandfather spoke up, requesting something from the fridge,

“Can you get the.. .Ummm… the thing… in the fridge… you know… ummmm.. Ahhh!”

With frustration in his voice, I saw him pointing to the fridge, eyes squinted as if the motion of tightening his lids would summon the word he was trying to find.

Unsure of what he was requesting, I opened the fridge and pointed to a few common items he may be asking for, “The butter? The milk? Some juice?”

He shook his head in annoyance, still unable to recall the proper word,

“The red stuff… the ummm… the stuff in the jar.. Ummm…”

I chimed in, “The jelly?”

In defeat, he rose from his chair and retrieved the new container of salsa. It had flecks of green pepper and white onion peeking through the rosy red tomato base. Of course, he wanted salsa, he loves salsa with his omelets. Why couldn’t I figure that out?

More importantly, why couldn’t he find the right word?

The answer is, we all have moments where the right word is lingering on the tip of our tongue, like a hesitant swim student perched on the edge of the high dive, debating the cold plunge below.

It is common for everyone to have a brief moment of forgetfulness, a lapse in memory, a lack of recall. Yet for the person living with dementia, these events can occur more often with coupling frustration and shame.

As frustrated as I was, unable to fit in the missing piece of the puzzle as my grandfather grappled for the right word, it was obvious how much more frustrated he was. He depended on me to help. I was more flexible, more mobile, more agile and yet even I could not read his mind.

The harder he tried to find the right word, the more distant the word became. Perhaps this was due to increasing annoyance on his part and eventual shame. The feelings he had about his inabilities and obvious limitations (while trying to recall the word “salsa”) closed off any potential clearing for the right word to emerge.

I am not sure if I helped or hindered his recall by naming various items in the fridge. I wanted to solve his problem, meet his needs, make him less anxious. Yet, the more I talked, the more I muddled up his ability to find the right word. I may have even added to his sense of failure as his granddaughter had to finish his sentences for him.

As I look back, I would have appreciated a guide specific to him. What would he have wanted me to do in that moment when recall and vocalization escaped him. Did he appreciate my help or find it more annoying? Would he have preferred silence and patience? Would this information have created a more empathic approach to the ever-present limitations upon us?

I was recently connected with a contact who feels just as passionate about helping our partners look good in the eye of the disease process when they cannot find the right words to express their needs

Associate Dean for Research at Arizona State University, David Coon, developed the Early Partners in Caring Program (EPIC), which gives the person with dementia the opportunity to tell their care partners the types of intervention and assistance they would like if they need it.

Sadly, I will never know the answers, as my grandfather has since passed away. I would have loved for my grandfather to tell me what he wanted, how he wanted to be treated and what interventions made him more frustrated as the words came less easy for him. Yet, what he taught me in understanding and tolerance I now utilize every day, caring for every client living with dementia.

- by Cathy Braxton, CDCS

Chief Education Officer

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