A new way of seeing dementia

BY THERESA KLEIN – GUEST COLUMNIST

How do you feel about Alzheimer’s and dementia? Are you afraid of these conditions, or do you wish more people would talk about them?

When I was in high school, my grandfather began showing signs of Alzheimer’s and came to live with my family in the ‘80s. There was little understanding of the disease at the time, and my family felt alone and isolated.

My early experiences led me to become an occupational therapist. I am proud of what my colleagues and I have been able to accomplish within our workplace. I am disappointed, however, by the lack of respect afforded to older adults, especially those with dementia.

I would like to think we are more enlightened than we have been in the past. Perhaps not. I encourage you to look at advertisements, TV and films to see how those with dementia are portrayed.

I found a Halloween catalog this fall offering a life-sized witch called “Dementia,” which is meant to be displayed on the porch. A recent TV comedy featured a “crazy, demented” grandmother. Though played for laughs, these images and characters reinforce negative and harmful stereotypes.

At the same time, we are missing opportunities to show Alzheimer’s and related conditions in a positive light. Most reports in the media focus on the hope of early diagnosis and cures or the hardships and challenges of people in their final days. Few focus on what happens in between or on living in the moment.

The fact is that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or any condition that results in memory loss does not mean the end of happiness. As a cognitive clinical specialist, I helped create a program that concentrates on people’s strengths instead of their losses.

The result is a community where people are active participants in life. Instead of sitting on the sidelines they bake cookies, discuss current events and engage in creative projects, worship services and singing.

In short, they are not the people you see in movies and on television. They are people like you and me who are experiencing changes or gaps in their abilities and who need some assistance in closing those gaps.

We need to start seeing them differently. In addition, as a society we need to talk about Alzheimer’s and related conditions. We need to educate ourselves, remove the fear and if needed make plans regarding our future and healthcare needs.

If we as a society are able to move beyond the stereotypes and derogatory Halloween and TV characters, we will be able to see the rich lives that those with dementia can lead.

Cognitive Clinical Specialist Theresa Klein is the creator of the Emerald Crest program at Emerald Crest by Augustana Care, located in Minnetonka, Burnsville, Victoria and Shakopee. More information is available at emeraldcrest.com.