How television news affects people with dementia and Alzheimer's

Caregiver, patient expert

Few people would argue that news - whether delivery is in the form of a newspaper, television or an Internet site, is generally led by catchy and often sensational headlines. Television, however, is the news-delivery system that has the most power to confuse elders with dementia, since the images an elder sees,  often misinterpreted, can be stressful and painful. TV images, easily viewed out of context, make reality difficult to discern.

Most boomers have (or had) parents who were greatly influenced by World War II. It was not different for me. My dad suffered a closed head injury during World War II, while on maneuvers. He was in a coma for weeks. Once he came out of the coma, he had to re-learn many skills, including how to walk and talk.. Yet, Dad went on to lead a fairly normal life.

That "normal" life ended after he had brain surgery to insert a shunt meant to drain spinal fluid that was building up behind scar tissue left behind by the injury. That surgery, a type that is generally safe, left Dad with severe dementia.

There's no way to tell if the surgery itself caused the mental damage, or if it was the anesthetic or some other factor. All we knew was that Dad came out of surgery a changed man, with severe dementia, paranoia and anxiety.

Television at the nursing home

While the nursing home staff encouraged people to remain in the community rooms and take part in peer activity, some folks, like my dad, relaxed more in a quieter setting. Dad often chose to go to his room. One of Dad's pleasures was music, so we had a CD player in his room, and I kept him well stocked with big band music that he'd enjoyed. I'd asked the care staff at the home to turn on Dad's music for him, unless there was a specific show on television, such as a music show, Dad would enjoy. I specifically asked that they did not turn on the news.

However, not every staff member could remember that request, especially if that person was new or a substitute caregiver who didn't know Dad well. Because of this, sometimes the news would be blaring from his TV, as Dad nodded off in the evening. News shows were often on the community room channels, as well, since some elders wanted to watch these programs.

The problem was, many people like Dad couldn't tell the difference between television and reality. One of the most heartbreaking scenes I had with my dad was when I visited early one evening and he begged me to save him - to protect him.

His TV program, the chosen one, had ended and the news had come on. There was Dessert Storm war footage being played out in front of Dad. He kept telling me there was a war in Fargo (where we lived). I told him, no, this was just TV and this fighting was far away. Dad kept telling me not to lie to him - that I needed to protect him and get him out of there. He was afraid he'd be captured.

Many of you who've cared for people with dementia have been through similar situations, so I don't need to explain how painful this was for me. No matter what I said to Dad, in his mind, there was a war in Fargo and he was frightened.

Eventually, of course, that horrid time passed. However, I found that any news program seemed to upset him. These days, I've noted that less television is used in modern nursing homes. The availability of DVDs, with about anything any elder would like to see, has helped that trend along.

However, I'm sure most elders are going to be exposed, even if briefly and by accident, to some very dreadful "breaking news." That's the reality of the world we live in. We, as caregivers, need to be aware of these times, and do our best to comfort our elders.

In the end, however, I feel that for people with dementia, avoidance of any news, other than some "feel good" show, is the best policy. We never know when a news program will send our elder back into his or her personal hell.

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