Dementia and muscle memory

Exercising Muscle Memory – Part 2

In Part 1, I introduced a person-centered approach to caring for a loved one with dementia. This approach is based on the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori: to treat the individual with respect, dignity, and helping them remain as independent as possible, for as long as possible. Feb 18 thumbnail_Braincartoonv2

It is a framework, designed to work with “muscle memory,” the type of procedural memory – the “how” of memory.

In this model, the activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating, personal hygiene, etc., are broken down into easy sequential steps. You provide the encouragement for your loved one to do these activities as much as they can. This process taps into their “muscle memory” so that they don’t lose their ability to do these simple tasks through lack of doing them.

Persons with dementia lose their ability to plan, initiate, and carry out daily activities as the disease progresses. In the early stages of illness, there may not be noticeable changes. For example, in dressing themselves, they may put on clothes that have spots and stains without realizing this. They can, however, still find their clothes and put them on in the order needed. In the middle stages, you may find that they wear the same clothes day after day, or mix colors and patterns that don’t match. They begin to have trouble buttoning buttons, or zipping zippers. In the late stages, they may put outer garments on first and undergarments on top, forgetting the proper order.

To explain how this person-centered Montessori approach works, here are a few examples using key principles mentioned in Part 1. Some organization, preparation, and patience is needed on your part as caregiver.

  1. CHOICE

Your loved one has been making choices all his/her life and needs to feel they have some control of their life. Depending on the stage of the dementia, if they can still make a selection of what clothes to wear, ask them to choose between two items. For example, would they like to wear the blue shirt or the white shirt? The black pants or the grey ones? Help make it easy for them to make a decision. You might also inform them that today is the day you go to church, or to a doctor’s appointment, or out to eat lunch. In these cases, they may want to dress up a little more than in everyday clothes.

  1. INDEPENDENCE

As caregiver, you provide the necessary encouragement your loved one requires to dress themselves. You might just need to lay out the pieces of clothing in the order they should be worn. If your loved one is in the middle stages, handing them one piece of clothing at a time may be all that is required. Prompt or cue them how to put their clothes on, button buttons, zip zippers, tie shoelaces. It may take a little extra time, but the important thing is that they do it themselves. Your patience is required here so that you aren’t tempted to take over to hurry up the process.

  1. DEMONSTRATE

As the dementia progresses, your loved one’s ability to process words will deteriorate. Showing how to do things in small steps is better than giving instructions. By using less language in your interaction, you help allow them to focus all their attention on what you are demonstrating, rather than trying to find the “right” words to respond to your questions. This also lessens their frustration as they try to imitate your actions.

On the few occasions when I helped my Mom get ready to retire at night, I stood beside her in the bathroom. Next, I gave her a warm, wet washcloth in one hand and the bar of soap in the other. Then, just rubbing my hands together, I pretended I was rubbing soap onto the washcloth. Mom responded by doing the same, washing then rinsing her face and hands. Feb 18 face cream-1327847_640After handing her the towel to dry, I brought out her favorite facial cream, “Oil of Olay.” Mom had used this toiletry product for years. Rubbing my cheek, as if to put on the cream, was a signal for Mom to do the same. It didn’t take many words – just demonstrating so that her “muscle memory” could kick in and take over.

  1. SEQUENCE

If you stop to think about it, a task as simple as brushing one’s teeth involves many steps to completion. Breaking down everyday tasks into their basic, simplest components allows your loved one to focus on one step at a time.  You want them to be successful in this task, so you may need to adjust the steps to match where they are in the disease process. Putting the toothbrush next to the tube of toothpaste on the counter may be all that is needed. In the middle stages, you may have to cue them to take off the cap, squeeze the toothpaste on the brush, wet the brush, brush up and down, rinse their mouth, etc.  In the later phase, you may even need to guide their hand as they brush their teeth, and hand them a glass of water or mouthwash to rinse. Watch so they don’t swallow the mouthwash thinking it’s something to drink.

  1. MEANINGFUL ACTIVITIES

This principle describes the introduction of activities and routines that are meaningful to our loved ones. These activities help activate their senses and stimulate their minds. To ensure success, take into account your loved one’s interests, hobbies, former occupation, likes and dislikes. The important thing is to try to plan activities where there is no right or wrong way or winners or losers. Here are a few examples:

  1. Heather O’Neil, from Yorkshire, UK, has a website, “Creative-Carer.com,” where she posts some of the therapeutic activities that she plans for her mother who was diagnosed with mixed dementia. Her mother Margaret was an artist. Each week, Heather organizes materials for an artistic activity such as card making, crepe paper flowers, etc. Her mother has won competition awards for her pieces and gives out many of her creations as gifts.
  2. Harry Urban has been living with Alzheimer’s for over thirteen years and doesn’t let his dementia get to him. His hobby is woodworking and he displays many of his creations on his Facebook page. He delights in challenging himself to carve difficult pieces.
  3. For a former fisherman, try giving him a tackle box with lures and flies to organize or the materials to make them.
  4. For a baseball fan, looking at or collecting Hall of Famer baseball cards might be enjoyable, or even just playing a game of catch.
  5. A golfer might like to practice putting golf balls on an indoor/outdoor putting mat.

Many dementia care facilities in the USA are incorporating Montessori principles. The benefits to following this person-centered approach are many but here are just a few:

  • An increase in self-esteem
  • An increase in motor skills
  • An increase in interaction
  • Stimulation of the senses
  • A sense of accomplishment
  • A reduction in anxiety.

One last recommendation – be flexible and willing to adapt to what your loved one is able to do on a certain day. What was of interest one day may not be engaging to them the next.

I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!

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To visit the website and see photos of Heather O’Neil and her mother, go to: Creative-carer.com. Her Facebook page is www.facebook.com/CreativeCarer/.

Harry Urban’s Facebook page is www.facebook.com/Harry.Urban1/.

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To read about how Montessori methods are used with students and senior residents with mild dementia, click here: http://www.therobertsacademy.org/school/approach.html.

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Brookstone sells an indoor putting green mat for under $40.00. Check it out here: http://www.brookstone.com/pd/putting-mat-with-hazards/797547p.html.

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This 4-minute video, “Thelma’s Story,” shows the Montessori practice in use: https://youtu.be/lUfhr67oTA8

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