If you aren’t familiar with texting acronyms, BFF stands for Best Friends Forever. If you are reading this, you probably remember using or seeing those same letters written in your yearbooks. Regardless, the meaning is the same….a declaration that you will remain best friends, forever. For a few, this holds to be true, but for most of us, our childhood best friends are replaced with others as we go through life; be it college, travels, pursuing a career and/or raising a family. What doesn’t change is that the majority of people, when asked, can name someone as their best friend. Often times, that person is also a family member, such as a spouse or sibling or even cousin. In any case, there is someone in their life that they rely on for moral and emotional support as well as have fun with.
At this point you may be wondering how “best friends” relate to Alzheimer’s and dementia? Well, they relate a great deal. So much so, that research has been done, books written and training programs developed around the concept of “best friends”. In 1996, David Troxel, M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) and Virginia Bell, M.S.W. (Master of Social Work), published their first book, “The Best Friend’s Approach to Alzheimer’s Care”. It was immediately regarded as a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s care and several organizations, including the Alzheimer’s Association, adopted it as their philosophy for caring for someone with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s. The title of the book pretty much sums up the message; caregivers need to become “best friends” with those they are caring for.
One might wonder why an Alzheimer caregiver would be any different than a general caregiver, care is care, right? That is simply not true. Granted, all people who are in situation that requires the need of a caregiver will need compassion and kindness along with medical care. However, those people living with Alzheimer’s may also need to feel loved by the person that is caring for them. Memory loss is the most defining symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia in general. In many cases, the individual does not recognize their spouse or children. They can easily feel alone and scared, not recognizing anything around them. They may even have lost the ability to speak or understand words, making it difficult for them to communicate. It is for these, and other reasons that they desperately need to feel loved and safe. Despite the memory loss, those with Alzheimer’s still understand the meaning of a smile and gentle, kind tone in a voice. Touch is also important. Humans, by nature, need human contact. A hug or caress can alleviate anxiety and fear in most people, especially for those with dementia. They may not understand what is going on around them, but they know that a hug is reassuring and the person with them is looking out for them.
Another important key to the “Best Friends Approach…” is learning the residents’ life stories. We all know our best friend’s life story, which is one of the factors of the relationship that makes it so special; a full understanding of their history. Where they came from, what they have done, who is important to them…all the details that make them who they are. In the case of Alzheimer’s, short term memory is usually what is affected most and early on after developing the disease. Many people with dementia retain clear memories of their past and may believe that they are currently living during that time. Caregivers who know their residents’ pasts can more easily detect these actions and handle them. If they are not harmful, then there is no reason to dissuade them from their actions. As a matter of fact, the caregiver has a better chance at communicating with the residents and getting them to respond more favorably. Knowing their life story also helps to keep the residents’ histories and memories alive. It is likely that they will lose some memories permanently. Caregivers can keep these stories alive, which may even help trigger memories that aren’t lost.
All in all, the work that Troxel and Bell have done and continue to do for those with Alzheimer’s is invaluable. Together they improved the culture of dementia care giving. Here at Terra Vista, we are impassioned to change the view on Alzheimer’s care even further. Not only by utilizing the best friend’s approach but we are committed to keeping families connected. Best friends forever until we find a cure.