Senior Living Q & A: How much does mom understand?

Q. My mom, who lives with us, has Alzheimer’s disease. She barely speaks anymore and I wonder if she understands anything that is going on around her.

People with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory loss often seem to live in a different reality or a different time and place. Despite this disconnect, we should not simply dismiss a person as “gone,” or focus so narrowly on all the abilities that the person has lost. Instead, we must focus on the uniqueness of each person and bring an open mind to how we address their needs — the basic human needs we all share.

The most basic human need is for safety and security. Although there is certainly a physical component, it is really the consistent, caring relationships with others that give a person with memory loss a feeling of well-being.

Another basic need all human beings share is the need for love and friendship. People with memory loss might feel embarrassed or afraid to communicate with others because of their forgetfulness or difficulties finding the right words. These feelings can lead to loneliness, isolation and depression. That's why it's especially important that we do all we can to fulfill our loved one's need for meaningful social interactions with family and friends. Even when a person with memory loss seems to be living in his or her own reality, it is still possible — and beneficial — to connect with the person on an emotional level and express your love for them.

We also all share a basic need for meaning and purpose in life. As memory loss progresses, it becomes more difficult for a person to perform life-skill tasks. However, there are still many ways we can enrich the person's life by adapting activities so that they can participate in a way that is meaningful. In addition to boosting a person's self-confidence and enhancing their quality of life, personalized life enrichment also helps reduce frustration and anxiety. If your mom spent many years as a homemaker, have her help around the house. Maybe she can dust, or fold towels or even just hold a measuring cup while you spoon the ingredients into it.

The basic human need to be listened to and heard is also important. Each of us desires to communicate and form relationships with others. However, memory loss can make it very difficult for a person to express their thoughts with words. That's why it's vitally important that we take the time to really focus on the meaning behind our loved ones' words and actions. This takes patience, steadfastness and most of all, empathy. Making eye contact and giving your loved one your full attention makes them feel important and acknowledged, which are feelings that can often be missing for those with memory loss.

Fundamentally, we need to recognize that every person — regardless of memory loss — is still a human being with the same needs as the rest of us. It is up to us as caregivers to help meet those needs.

NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.

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