Dementia care expert to talk about challenges at Pleasanton Senior Center today

Dementia is a term that describes wide range of symptoms, author Laura Wayman says

Dementia care expert Laura Wayman will share her insights and practical advice at the Pleasanton Senior Center's Coffee and Conversation with the Experts at 10:30 a.m. this morning.

She is also on Blog Talk Radio in a show called "Live with the Dementia Whisperer," where she and host Scott Cluthe discuss dementia and encourage caretakers to call in with their questions.

"The question I get most often is people ask me, 'What is dementia?'" Wayman said on the show.

She noted that dementia is not a specific disease or a complete diagnosis, it is a term that describes a wide range of symptoms. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases.

This can be especially hard on family caregivers, notes dementia care expert Laura Wayman, author of "A Loving Approach to Dementia Care," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Up to 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by age 85, between 25% and 50% of people will exhibit signs of it.

There is no cure for dementia, but caregivers can manage the symptoms and give their loved ones quality of life, Wayman asserts. There is no cookie-cutter formula when dealing with a person who has dementia, she pointed out.

"All they can do is learn to manage these challenges," she said.

She noted that many myths persist about dementia. One is that people with dementia don't know what they want and can't communicate.

"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Wayman said. "They still retain their feelings and emotions. But they have more and more difficulty processing what they are feeling and communicating."

She suggests that caregivers take notes on their behavior to find patterns.

"It is the same thing as caring for an infant," she said. "They can't tell you if they are hungry -- but they certainly can communicate."

Things change on a day-to-day basis so caregivers must remain fluid and flexible, Wayman said, and watch for cues.

"What works one day may not work the next," she said. "It is such a strange and interesting progression."

And it is a very individual process.

"If you have met one person with dementia, you have only met one person with dementia," she said. "We are the only ones that can change ... They may look like they have control over this but they do not. It becomes their normal."

Another myth is that dementia is a natural part of aging.

"That is saying it is not a medical condition, which it is," Wayman said. "The risk goes up as we age, but it is not the actual aging itself."

Myth: I should correct what a person with dementia says.

"That's a sign that they're losing their loved one, and we are often compelled to correct them but we are actually making their confusion worse," Wayman said. "This leads to feelings of depression, more confusion and aggressiveness."

She suggests, for instance, that if they say they had breakfast with their mom who passed away several years ago, instead of telling them their mom is dead, talk about the action. Say, "What did you have for breakfast?" or "I'll bet you enjoyed that."

"Too much information that they can't process will make them feel bad," she added.

Another myth: There is nothing I can do to lower my risk.

"There are many things we can do to keep our brain healthy," Wayman said.

Everyone should exercise, eat healthy and use the mental abilities they already have, plus try to build more brain function by learning things that are new and complex, such as a musical instrument.

"It is like building a new palm frond in a rain forest," Wayman explained. "We want our brain to have lots of palm fronds. Think of Alzheimer's like one weed wacker ... There is no way to prevent the weed wacker from getting in there, but we want to slow it down."

Wayman also notes that although memory loss is a symptom of dementia, everyone experiences memory loss when they reach middle age. The difference is most people can process a lapse in memory, such as retracing their steps to find their car keys, whereas someone with dementia cannot.

Wayman -- who partners with Comfort Keepers, which provides help to caregivers -- noted that the emotions of family caregivers reel from guilt, denial and distress to empathy, acceptance and understanding. Approximately 16 million Americans care for family members with dementia, Wayman said.

"Sixty-eight percent of the time if the caregiver, usually a spouse, doesn't reach out and get help, they will get sick," she said. "I see so many brave and courageous caregivers every day, trying to do the best they can in the most difficult role they will ever face."

Wayman's one-hour talk is open to the public at the Senior Center, 5353 Sunol Blvd. For more information, call 931-5365.

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