Family Living Focus: Medicine for the soul – a caregiver’s guide

The easiest part of caregiving is taking care of physical needs of the elderly and disabled. You can take courses on CPR, medication management and a variety of much needed services which keep the body clean and healthy. However, it is rare to find courses on “medicine for the soul”, the spiritual and often emotional aspect of care.

Someone with Alzheimer’s disease might not know night from day, how to dress, the names and relationships in her closest family circle but every time you greet them on the phone or in person and call them by name, they light up. They may say loving things, even some humor here and there, and you feel connected again. They might cry with you, telling you, in halted and disconnected words, stories of their past, and their love for their family.

Beneath the veil of dementia, people can and do communicate if we provide them the safety and stimulation. It may be only a tear, or a holding of a hand, or a few disjointed words, but you can feel the connection. As long as you can elicit a reaction, you still know that you two are connected. Because of your relationship to them, even when they can no longer react, you know that they will still know that someone they love is with them.

As a caregiver try to “get it,” and really understanding how to love unconditionally and accept what is happening to someone you love.

Following are a few of guidelines for success:

Always treat them with respect, not as a child (even if their behavior is childlike). The real adult is still in there, and on some level resists being treated or spoken to as an inferior person.

Be fully present when you are with them.  Listen. Agree. Being present is a gift. Maybe that is why they call it a present.

Forget logic. Pretend that what they are saying makes perfect sense. Or, try to reword the words so that they do make sense, and ask if that is what they intended to say. Congratulate them on making themselves so clear. Don’t say, “Do you remember? They probably don’t, and feel pressured to come up with the correct answer.

Use your sense of humor. Recall past funny experiences with them and encourage laughter. A caregiver told the story of when her mother first moved into her new home, a gentleman pursued her. He is now in a wheelchair. She has dementia. When the caregiver saw him in the lobby, she asked her mother if that was the man who was running after her. Her mother smiled and said, “Run, he can’t even walk!” They laughed. Her mother felt so smart. They connected.

Don’t negate their fears by saying “Everyone forgets sometimes.” They know at some level that their level of forgetting isn’t the norm. The caregiver laughs with her mother and tells her that her memory is lousy. She laughs too, and then tells the caregiver how scared she is. They hug and the caregiver tells her that family will always take care of her.

It’s not easy or simple, but somehow, it is easy and simple. The caregiver grows and learns every day. The caregiver knows that the real person inside needs to be stroked, and accepted and loved. Sing old songs, play music, play. Speak from your heart, not your mind. Tell them all the good things you remember. Touch, hug, rub their arm and brush their hair. We forget that older adults do not get physically touched in loving ways very often. Let them feel the human connection. That’s how our sprits connect, too.


Information adapted from article by Myrna Wolf, B.A. in the Fearless Caregiver Newsletter, Tuesday, September 24, 2013 – Issue #155.

If you would like more information on “Medicine for the Soul – A Caregiver’s Guide” feel free to contact Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., C.F.C.S. and Professor Emeritus – University of Minnesota at Be sure to watch for more Family Living Focus™ information in next week’s paper.