The Power of One-On-One Human Interaction

By Anne M. Foerg, Director of Social Work

Tom was a proactive caregiver to his wife, Lynette, who had been diagnosed in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease in late 2015. Several months after retiring from her job as a bookkeeper, Lynette noticed that she was having trouble managing the couple’s checkbook as she always had. She also had difficulty keeping track of the plans that she made with family and friends, as spending more time with those closest to her was something she had looked forward to after retirement. These uncharacteristic changes prompted Tom to suggest that Lynette see a neurologist, which resulted in the diagnosis.

The diagnosis came as a great shock to both Tom and Lynette. As any worried husband would, Tom immediately sought solutions to help Lynette cope with these changes. Always one to seek out the newest technological gadget, he purchased a smartphone and loaded it with applications to help her keep track of contacts, appointments, and important information like her medication regimen. He helped her to set alarms that reminded her when to do important tasks, and linked all of it to his phone giving him access to the same information. This way Tom could provide support when necessary. He also purchased an electronic medication dispenser which pre-poured Lynette’s medication each week so that she could easily access the proper pill when the reminder alarm sounded. This addition, in conjunction with the reminder on her phone was a bit of coordination of which Tom was particularly proud! While it was challenging for Lynette to learn these new systems, she eventually caught on to a point that they became useful, thus allowing the couple to focus on enjoying their time together.

Yet over time, Tom found that the systems he had set up began to lose their utility. Lynette began forgetting what the reminders meant and how to turn them off. Tom recognized that he needed to become more involved with Lynette’s day-to-day tasks, including administering her daily medication and escorting her everywhere.He not only needed to ensure Lynette’s safety, but also to remind her when and how to complete many of the tasks that she used to do on her own. He soon became exhausted. Tom found some respite in his continued ability to sleep in late, a habit he had always enjoyed, as Lynette would get up in the morning, prepare herself a simple breakfast, and watch the morning news.

One morning, however, that all changed. Tom awoke at his usual time, but instead of finding Lynette in front of the television, he found an empty couch. He quickly called out Lynette’s name, but received no answer. Panicked, Tom did a quick search of the apartment to no avail. He immediately ran out to search for Lynette. Thankfully, he found her chatting with a neighbor in the lobby, albeit in her pajamas, but this incident prompted Tom to reach out to CaringKind for assistance about what to do next.

Tom met with a CaringKind social worker to discuss the situation and immediately expressed interest in finding technology that could assist him and Lynette in this next phase of her condition. After learning about Tom’s interest in technology, and his creative use of it as a caregiver, the social worker did discuss options to ensure Lynette’s safety. The social worker introduced Tom to products such as an automatic stove shut-off system which could be installed to prevent a fire if Lynette were to forget to turn off the burner after making her morning tea, as well as GPS systems, such as a watch or shoe insert, should Lynette wander or get lost. Yet the social worker also discussed the benefit of low-tech solutions to these situations, including door chimes to alert Tom if Lynette opened the door or a specialized door lock to prevent her from opening it in the first place.

Tom liked these solutions, but the social worker also noted his exhaustion and reflected on the fact that while these products could be part of a good overall plan of care, they would not provide Tom with the time and the space he needed for himself. They discussed how Lynette’s needs would continue to grow, and Tom expressed fear that he would not have the stamina it would require, as he was already finding it hard without the rest he had been used to. Our social worker confirmed that this would be the case if Tom did not consider engaging additional support. Lynette needed a person present with her at most times, but that person could not always be Tom. The social worker then suggested that it was time to think about introducing a companion. Tom admitted to avoiding the thought of this next step because it would mean acknowledging Lynette’s decline, but he had not considered the impact of the decline on him. As beneficial as technology can be, our social worker noted that when it comes to caring for a person with dementia, nothing can take the place of one-on-one human interaction.

With our social worker’s guidance, Tom found a day program for Lynette to attend, which allowed him a few hours of respite each day, during which he could nap, go out with a friend, or go to his doctor’s appointments. This break was enough to help Tom get up earlier in the morning so that he could spend time with Lynette, but it also made him more comfortable with the idea of hiring a companion. Tom found other ways in which technology was helpful to him as a caregiver, including the use of a smartphone application that allowed him and the companion to share information about Lynette. But in caring for a person with dementia, Tom recognized that there is no substitute for the human touch.

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