THE BLOG
10/03/2011 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Memory Loss Doesn't Equal Loss of Humanity

People with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory loss often seem to live in a different reality or a different time and place. Despite this disconnect, we should not simply dismiss a person as "gone" or focus so narrowly on all the abilities that the person has lost. Instead, we must focus on the uniqueness of each person and bring an open mind to how we address their needs -- the basic human needs we all share.

The most basic human need is for safety and security. Although there is certainly a physical component, it is really the consistent, caring relationships with others that give a person with memory loss a feeling of well-being. At Sunrise Senior Living, we satisfy this need by our designated care model, in which each resident is consistently cared for by the same care managers. Designated care managers become trusted friends who know each resident's likes and dislikes, as well as all of the small details that can mean the difference between a resident having a good day and having a great day. Although a resident may not remember their designated care manager's name, a familiar face and reassuring hug can go a long way to help them feel secure.

Another basic need all human beings share is the need for love and friendship. People with memory loss might feel embarrassed or afraid to communicate with others because of their forgetfulness or difficulties finding the right words. These feelings can lead to loneliness, isolation and depression. That's why it's especially important that caregivers do all they can to fulfill their loved one's need for meaningful social interactions with family and friends. Even when a person with memory loss seems to be living in his or her own reality, it is still possible -- and beneficial -- to connect with the person on an emotional level and express your love for them.

We also all share a basic need for meaning and purpose in life. As memory loss progresses, it becomes more difficult for a person to perform life skill tasks. However, there are still many ways we can enrich the person's life by adapting activities so that they can participate in a way that is meaningful. Life enriching experiences go beyond "typical" activities; they actually speak to who a person is, to their specific interests, and to what provides fulfillment for each individual. In addition to boosting a person's self-confidence and enhancing their quality of life, personalized life enrichment also helps reduce frustration and anxiety.

I know of a resident who had just moved into one of Sunrise's memory care neighborhoods and seemed very withdrawn. The life enrichment manager spent some time talking with him and learned that he no longer felt as if he had a purpose in life. He mentioned that he used to love placing a flag on his front porch every morning and taking it down each evening. The flag symbolized his love of country and all the years he served in the military. She arranged for him to do the same thing, and he now hangs the flag outside the memory care neighborhood every day. This validates the resident's need for purpose as well as his strong sense of patriotism.

The basic human need to be listened to and heard is also important. Each of us desires to communicate and form relationships with others. However, memory loss can make it very difficult for a person to express their thoughts with words. That's why it's vitally important that caregivers take the time to really focus on the meaning behind their loved ones' words and actions. This takes patience, steadfastness and most of all, empathy. Making eye contact and giving your loved one your full attention makes them feel important and acknowledged, which are feelings that can often be missing for those with memory loss.

Below is a video that we recently developed at Sunrise that provides an overview of the above approaches as well as additional tips for caregivers. Fundamentally, we need to recognize that every person -- regardless of memory loss -- is still a human being with the same needs as the rest of us. It is up to us as caregivers to help meet those needs.