Caregivers have many roles and one of the most valuable is to support the skills of people with Alzheimer’s and to help maintain their sense of identity and self worth. People with dementia are, in many ways, no different to any other people. In their life history they have lived their lives, had jobs, families, made choices, influenced others and been influenced themselves. A person’s identity reminds us that memories of life experiences very much contribute to their identity in the present.
The problem for people with Alzheimer’s is that recall is more severely affected than recognition. This means that people with dementias such as Alzheimer’s are often able to retain the ability to recognize their own story when they can only recall small fragments of it or have difficulty communicating what they remember about it.
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Caregivers to people with mid-to-late stage Alzheimer’s can help by collecting and recording their stories. They, or nursing and nursing care staff, can then tell people their own stories to help them maintain a stronger sense of self. It is important that the story is told accurately otherwise it can add to confusion or make the person annoyed when it is told incorrectly. Asking the person to contribute in the story telling by asking them questions, ‘What was it like when you joined the army?’, ‘What can you remember when you had you daughter Mary?’. Such questions can help them retain ownership of their story.
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Having some sort of understanding about what is it like to have Alzheimer’s disease can help caregivers understand the disease, the effect it has on the brain, cognitive changes, the difficulties they have with language and speech and the degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s. All these things contribute to the devastating changes in the way a person behaves and their ability to care for themselves.
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Reminders of the person’s past life can all help reinforce their feelings of self worth and identity. You can use photos, tools, souvenirs, military service log books, medals, school reports or newspaper items from the past as visual memory aids. All sorts of things can stimulate the senses. The smell of perfume, herbs, candy, etc can often stimulate some of the earliest laid down memories. The same applies to sounds (music, machinery) and touch. A little creativity in these areas can also help staff in hospitals and care homes to see beyond the patient and into the whole person. People with Alzheimer’s are not just a disease and it can make a very positive impact on care as I found when I took in photographs of my father’s life when he was in the hospice. So many people came up to me and said how helpful it had been in understanding who he was and what he was, at times, trying to communicate.
Advocating for a person with Alzheimer’s often means telling their story. This gives a powerful message in supporting their identity. It says you value them as people, on the contribution they have made to society, their families, their communities. It says you are interested in them as individuals, that they have made a difference to people’s lives.
More Caregiver Information on the Importance of Reinforcing Identity for People with Alzheimer’s