Caregivers Can Influence Emotions of Loved One, Others Involved in Caregiving Chain
I never thought of my mom as a moody person. She might have had changes in temperament earlier in her life, but self-control allowed her to maintain a calm and pleasant demeanor. However, as Alzheimer’s disease progressed in its efforts to destroy her brain, I found that Mom could be very moody, going into a snit for no reason at all. I eventually learned that my own temperament could make a difference in her emotional state. When I visited her at the nursing home and found that she was upset at something, I learned to adopt a “zen” attitude. The result – nine times out of 10, Mom would calm down and become much more relaxed and friendly.
I was reading the November/December 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, when a story caught my eye. The article, “The ‘Me’ Effect,” describes studies that have found how individual people can influence the moods of others. Although these studies do not focus on people with Alzheimer’s, I can see where the findings can be really insightful for caregivers as they interact with both their loved one with dementia, as well as others who are part of the caregiving chain (such as family members, nursing staff at facilities, medical professionals and other interested parties).
The story described a study by Dr. Noah Eisenkraft and Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein that was published in Psychological Science in April 2010. Scientific American Mind writer Nicole Branan wrote that the key conclusion “is that without even trying or even being aware of it, each person gives out a vibe – the researchers dubbed it ‘trait affective presence’ – that affects everyone they come into contact with in the same way.” The researchers found that emotions such as discouragement, frustration and stress were influenced by those with whom a person is interacting; interestingly, emotions such as enthusiasm and happiness are less influenced by other people.
Eisenkraft noted in the article that most people do not realize what types of reaction their presence causes. In addition, the way the trait affective presence (which is “the tendency to consistently elicit the same emotions in everyone around you, regardless of what mood you happen to be in,” according to the reporter) is unknown. Additional research questions, according to Branan, include “How do people elicit consistently good or bad feelings in others? Is it their nonverbal cues? The amount of warmth they show to others?”
These are great questions. All I can say is that I found ways to calm Mom down when she was spiraling out of control. Before I visited her, I often would think about the responses of certain friends who most often would bring me (or Mom) out of a funk and then mimic their behaviors. Some of those lessons included remaining calm and centered and displaying a good mood that wasn’t going to be changed by Mom’s moods. During those particular visits, I would keep my focus on Mom, as opposed to worrying about my own issues or another resident’s behavior. I watched my body language, making sure that I looked Mom in the eye, kept a pleasant expression on my face, and leaned forward toward her when she spoke. Slowly but surely, Mom’s countenance would change as her emotions moved from anger and frustration to calmness and friendliness.
Based on my own experiences, I’d encourage caregivers not to underestimate the influence they can have on a loved one with dementia who is having a bad day. By taking a reflective look at your own behaviors and then adjusting your actions so that they are positive and affirming, you can help influence your loved one to move out of frustration, anger, and despair and into more positive (and pleasant) emotions.