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Robert E.P. Elmer III, of Stonington, is a senior care adviser, lecturer and Alzheimer’s care specialist.

People with Alzheimer’s lose ability to reason

I received a phone call the other day from a very distressed son. He was caring for his father in his home and he was at his wits’ end. Dad had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and his son called me out of frustration. “I can reason with my 7-year-old son better than I can my father for heaven’s sake.” He’s absolutely right, and there’s a very good reason for it.

Very simply, you cannot reason with someone who has literally lost the ability to reason, so there’s nothing to be gained by trying to be rational or logical with them. Their world makes perfect sense to them as they see it, so when we see them behaving in a way that we would consider inappropriate, there is no amount of rational discussion you could have with them that’s going to change things.

You and I have “the filter” that tells us, although we may be thinking something, it’s best not to say it. My experience has taught me that his father is going to “say it” or “do it” without any consideration of the consequences, because his brain no longer has a “boss.” Over the years, I have met with a variety of different family members who were convinced their loved one was “doing that on purpose.”

Just like using a foreign language, if you talk louder and slower it’s not going to help your loved one understand what the mission is. The reason they repeatedly ask you what time they’re going to eat or where you’re going is because they weren’t able to hold onto the answer when you gave it to them.

Imagine that the answer to “where are we going?” is attached to a piece of velcro. When that answer gets into their brain, there’s nothing for it to stick to. Another example is asking you to remember a special day in your life — the day you got married, the day your first child was born, etc. When you think about those days, your mind goes back into your mental history book and goes to the page where those events are recorded. An individual with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have that page or those pages.

Snowflake of illnesses

Now there’s a reason I refer to Alzheimer’s disease as a snowflake of illnesses. As no two snowflakes are alike, neither are two individuals with Alzheimer’s. There are certain characteristics or issues that one afflicted loved one may have that another will never have, and that’s why it’s so important you take the time to know and understand them as the individuals they are. Although the one unfortunate common denominator is loss of short-term memory, it’s important to remember that we can’t paint them all with the same brush.

Getting them to stop a behavior is not always an easy chore. Maybe putting a photograph of the bathroom on the outside of the door will help him find it. In one dedicated community there was a woman who was obsessing about where to catch the train at the end of the day. This was no surprise as she rode the train every day of her working life. The solution? The community put a railroad crossing sign on the wall and told her this is where you catch the train. Was she standing there at 6:45 every night? No, but now that she had the answer, she was able to move on.

If you have questions, please email me at and I’ll answer them directly or in a future article, and remember to Join the Journey.

Robert E.P. Elmer III, of Stonington, is a senior care adviser, lecturer and Alzheimer’s care specialist.

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