When my father was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a doctor explained to us the difference between long-term and short-term memory loss. This is how he put it: "When you're traveling through the woods to a place you've visited many times, you'll be walking on a trail that will be well broken in. But when you go to a place you've never visited, the brush and branches spring back, devouring the newly made path so you can't find the same way back."
Think of these paths and trails as the highway system of your brain. With childhood memories you're cruising down a two-lane highway. But when you're trying to think of someone you just met or what just happened two minutes ago, the road you're stumbling upon hasn't even been surveyed and cleared yet.
Dad spoke directly to his physician. "So what you're telling me is I'm going to be lost in the woods forever?"
The doctor explained, "No, you'll have many moments of clarity during the first stage of the disease. But as you progress into the middle stage, these moments will find you less and less."
I have to tell you that when my dad would realize all of a sudden he was not where he thought he was, or you're not who he thought you were, the devastation that would spread across his face was heartbreaking. It was one of the saddest facets of watching him deteriorate.
The best thing I found to do was to gently change the subject. I would attempt to move his mind onto something else. Amazingly, his penetrating sadness would usually vaporize as fast as it found him.
When my father progressed into the last stage of Alzheimer's, redirecting his thoughts became almost impossible. His delusions and hallucinations became so pronounced, I could only divert his train of thought for a few seconds at best.
When caring for an Alzheimer's patient, you must learn to use redirection to your advantage. Knowing just when confusion is beginning to snowball straight into delusion, and using simply phrased words can create a U-turn in his or her thought patterns. These are skills you need to master.
When the afflicted patient begins speaking of a topic that makes absolutely no sense, casually interrupt with a quick statement like, "That color looks great on you."
However, when the disease has advanced to a point where words don't work that well, try handing them something tangible, like two wash cloths of different colors; for example a green one and a blue one or any other two items that are similar.
Ask them which of the two they like better. It may be an hour before you get an answer, or it may be never. The point is you now have directed their confused thoughts onto another subject. Sometimes if they can actually hold objects in their hands they will be redirected more quickly and for a longer period.
You may have to rely on their senses. Always remember that taste, touch and smell may redirect their thoughts on to more pleasant memories and for a caregiver, it may be the only options you have.
Gary Joseph LeBlanc was the primary caregiver of his father for a decade after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His newly released book, "Managing Alzheimer's and Dementia Behaviors," as well as "While I Still Can" and the expanded edition of "Staying Afloat in a Sea of Forgetfullness" can be found at www.common sensecaregiving.com.