As a writer, I sometimes have trouble finding the right word for what I’m trying to say. Sometimes I refer to my Thesaurus, but I have to admit that sometimes I rewrite a sentence to use a word I can remember. I also have problems finding the correct word when I’m talking, but according to the Alzheimer’s Association, that’s a typical age-related change. If I start to have the following new problems with words in speaking or writing, then I have reason for concern:
People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (e.g., calling a “watch” a hand clock).
Dad didn’t have this type of problem to any great extent. He was always a man of few words, and as he aged, he became a man of fewer words. In part, this was because he didn’t hear very well. When I began taking a more active role in his health care, we had his hearing tested and had him fitted with hearing aids. Whether it was his dementia or his resistance to the idea that his hearing was deficient, the result was the same. He never learned to use his aids properly: he put them in incorrectly, he forgot to turn them on, he forgot to turn them off which ran down the batteries, or he forgot to put them on at all. After several months, I gave up the fight, and the hearing aids stayed in the drawer of his night stand. He seemed to hear the TV well enough, especially if he had control of the volume, and he seemed to hear Mom as they chatted on the sofa. But when it came to conversation with the family, he withdrew into his own little cone of silence.
Mom, on the other hand, became more chatty as her dementia progressed. Unfortunately, her ability to communicate what she was thinking didn’t keep pace. She rarely used the wrong word; she just couldn’t find a word at all. There were many times when she came to me with a light in her eyes, a woman on a mission, a woman with something on her mind. Then she opened her mouth, and after a few words, she hit a verbal wall. As she searched for the word that had escaped, the light faded from her eyes. If I suggested a word, it was usually wrong, and the fading light turned to frustration. Finally, the frustration turned to pain as she withdrew into the isolation imposed by the plaque tangles in her brain. I often offered a hug and words that I hoped would be comforting.
“It’s okay, Mom. Go back with Dad and relax, and you can come back and tell me when you remember.”
But she didn’t. She didn’t remember anyway. She came back often and tried again and again. As time went on, she tried less, but she still loved to communicate. When someone said something to her that she didn’t understand or to which she couldn’t respond, she smiled and giggled. But even to the end, she never lost the ability to communicate with a loving touch. To the end, she was always ready to open her arms to give and receive a hug.
For more information about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at 800.272.3900 or www.alz.org.