Alzheimer’s: When Harsh Words Fly

I work a few days each week as a baker of all things sweet at a beautiful assisted living and memory care home – the very same place where my dear mom spent her last year on earth. The people who reside here are placed for various needs, most of them needing more help than family can provide with matters related to living life with short-term memory loss. In my short time there as an employee I am getting to know and love each resident, but I do have a few favorites. One of those favorites is as sweet as she is feisty. One minute she can be doling out compliments and kisses, the next she’s telling me to stick my mixer where the sun don’t shine.

But I love her to pieces.

I think she holds a special place in my heart because she reminds me in small ways of my mom (pictured here), who also had some bad days as she wrestled with Alzheimer’s in her later years of life.

In the years before Alzheimer’s, my mom was never one to use foul language; the worst I ever heard come from her mouth when I was a kid was an under her breath, “Shhh-ugar!” Yet, in the throes of the later stages of Alzheimer’s, my mom would occasionally make me blush with her language. If she were in her right mind, she’d be truly embarrassed.

Not long ago my new friend had a really bad day — I knew from the minute I walked in the door that morning that it was going to be a doozy when she began swearing at me for just saying, “Good morning.”

When any of our residents are having a bad day, I can’t really help much, as I’m “just the baker” and not directly involved in resident care. However, there is always one thing I can do. As my hands keep busy at the work of baking desserts, I can pray for those caring for the special needs of the residents. On that morning, I prayed for everyone involved in doing what was best for her, each one doing so with compassion and grace. All the while, I fought back tears for this dear woman who was living out one of my biggest fears for my future. You see, I struggle with the fear that Alzheimer’s may one day strip the filters from my tongue and that I might use uncharacteristically foul and abusive language.

So, how should caregivers deal with the foul language issue in their loved one with dementia? To answer that question, let me share a link to a super-helpful article from Very Well Health which discusses this problem and lists many suggestions. You’ll also find some internal links to explore on related issues: Relationship Between Foul Language and Dementia

My personal go-to tactic is the one in this article called “Redirect and Distract”. Where my mom was concerned, I would say something like, “Are you hungry? Would you like me to fix you a sandwich?” My mom loved sandwiches, so I kept a little stash of halved sandwiches in the fridge.

Other times I would distract her with an activity. I’d just walk away from her angry outburst and grab her coloring books and colored pencils and begin coloring. Nine times out of ten, she’d join me in a few minutes.

Coloring cards Momma received in the mail each week from her friend (and ours) Suzy.

Another thing I did on many occasions was to grab my collection of buttons and pour them out onto a towel on the kitchen table. I’d just quietly start sorting the buttons into color groupings, or line them up in rows. Mom could not resist this little sorting activity. Before long, she’d be calm and would join me.

Sorting buttons was a favorite calm-down activity for my mom

I wrote about these two and several other activities in my post Dementia Friendly Activities. The key thing was for me to be quiet and resist the urge to argue or add defensive words. Talking during one of her outbursts would only add fuel to the war of words raging uncontrollably in her head.

My friend at work has a similar calm-down button: her sweet tooth. I can sometimes redirect her downward spiral by offering her a cookie.

Since I’m the baker, I’ll sometimes say, “I need your help. Could you taste test this for me?” My friend also likes a slice of buttered bread with a cup of milk. Paying attention to what she enjoys and asks for in her calmer moments equips me with ideas for dealing with the tense moments.

Proverbs 31 Woman

While I dread the thought of ever having Alzheimer’s, I do trust the Lord with my future knowing that He will provide what I need should this be in His plan for me. It is my prayer that the Lord will keep my tongue sweet and gracious, and that the “law of kindness” will always be on my tongue. (Proverbs 31:26)