Alzheimer’s and Dementia: Changing the Focus from Deficits to Abilities

Historically, our society has approached people with disabilities or medical conditions in a way that identifies them by their limitations alone. They are just that: a disability or an illness, and their potential abilities are completely overlooked.

For example, we hear comments like this all the time: “You know Dave, my friend with Alzheimer’s?” Dave gets labeled up front in an undermining way, even though he happens to be an excellent pianist, loves photography, is incredible at trivia, and has a wicked sense of humor. But those talents never seem to make it into the conversation.  Ironically, when someone receives a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or any other form of dementia, it is the caregivers, families, and friends who often forget about all the redeeming qualities that person has. Memory loss suddenly becomes the only topic. Perhaps it is human nature to respond this way, because our intentions are to be helpful, but in the process, we often disregard our loved ones abilities in our quest to help manage their disabilities. By mainly focusing on what they can no longer do, as opposed to what they can do, we unintentionally take away their pride, sense of purpose, and opportunities for enjoyment.

So how can we change that?

The first place to start is to educate ourselves about the disease.  Alzheimer’s (the most common form of dementia) is a progressive disease, in which symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. People in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s are quite capable of actively participating in activities and social interactions that contribute to their ability to enjoy their lives. So it’s is up to us as their caregivers to provide them with opportunities to fulfill their interests, challenge their brains and make them feel successful. While they may forget where they put their glasses, they might still be capable of preparing a meal or creating a shopping list.

The next step is to identify what abilities they still possess and try to create occasions to enhance them. But how do you do that?

Staying actively engaged in life and avoiding isolation is vitally important to the health and emotional well-being of people living with memory loss as well as their caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends embracing lifestyle habits that improve overall health, such as exercising, consuming a nutritious diet and staying cognitively and socially active. Knowing this, try introducing your loved ones to activities that are more mentally challenging, such as learning a new skill, adopting a new hobby or engaging in formal education. Use old interests as a starting point and build on them. For example, if your loved one used to trade in the stock market, read business articles with them; use a virtual mock trading program to allow them to make trades using fake money. If they enjoyed photography, give them a camera; let them take photos and print out them out so they can see for themselves that they are still capable and successful at something. Selecting activities they enjoy will increase their level of engagement and you will be amazed at the sense of pride and purpose it will give them.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades has a wide range of senior programs and recently expanded its offerings to include various special interests clubs that speak directly to the participants interests. Beginning with 12 special interest clubs per week, participants are now able to choose how they spend their days. Topics range from geography, where they can travel the world using google earth, to gardening, where they can take part in planting, watering, harvesting and then cooking what they harvest. It has been scientifically shown that participation in stimulating activities may contribute to maintaining a person’s overall health – and all the JCC clubs have been designed with this in mind. They keep the participants actively involved, renew their sense of purpose and increase their self-esteem by giving them opportunities to be successful.

In September, an additional 12 clubs will be offered each week, giving participants a total of 24 special interest clubs to choose from. The JCC is currently featuring the its first annual Senior Adult Art show in the JCC’s Waltuch Gallery, which features works created by participants in several of the clubs.  These works truly showcase our participant’s abilities. They feel proud and important; they have a reason to keep going every day. Feeling needed and living with purpose are basic human desires for people at any age and provide us with a feeling of self-worth.  It’s opportunities like these that add to their quality of life, and in turn, improve it for their caregivers as well.

Written by Judith Davidsohn Nahary,
Director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades Senior Adult Department. Judi graduated from Touro College with a BS in Psychology, Advertising and Communications.