The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Magic Tools 3: Empathy

Last week, we started a series of blogs about the magic of using the right tools with LBD. If you haven’t read last week’s blog, do go back and read it. It lists some of the most important ways that dementia changes your loved one’s brain. Doing your homework and learning about these changes is a requirement if you are going to use these tools well. Last week’s blog also emphasized that the way you respond can make magic changes in your loved one’s reactions. At first, your response likely isn’t going to be automatic. It needs to be a carefully thought out choice, a conscious choice based on what you’ve learned about the dementia-damaged brain.

This week, we take the next step and talk about how important emotions are. Once dementia sets in, emotions rule. Last week, you learned that your loved one must accept the first information they receive about a situation as their TRUTH. That first information always has an accompanying emotion, and since the brain doesn’t like the unknown, it makes up a story to justify the emotion. This is a normal process—we all do it.
  • Something happens. You see a dog or hear someone talking on the phone or….
  • This information travels to the brain and picks up an emotion along the way. Since negative emotions like fear, worry, frustration or anger are the strongest and most urgent, the chances are that it will be one of these.
  • The brain doesn’t tolerate uncertainty, and so it automatically adds a reason for the emotion.
  • These strong and urgent emotions function as a natural alarm, a call to action that blares until the “reason” is addressed.
  • Then the brain uses complex thinking to evaluate the situation: Is the need for action real or false? If it is real, is it mild or severe? Should I act on it now or can I postpone action until later?
Up to the last step, that’s what we all do. Last week we introduced Frank, who is living with LBD. He can no longer take that last step. His brain doesn't have the ability to evaluate or decide on an action. Instead:
  • He must accept the emotional alarm and the reason for it as real and urgent—his TRUTH.
  • He will continue to feel the negative emotions until he believes that they have been physically addressed. (A mental solution will no longer work… “it was already taken care of” or “I’ll do it later” or even “that’s Jane’s job” just doesn’t compute.)
  • Stuck with this blaring negative emotion that demands action, Frank does his best to address it with behavior that is likely extreme and appears irrational.
Empathy is an essential dementia care partnering tool. That underlying negative emotion driving your loved one’s behavior MUST be addressed. Nothing else will work.
  • Ask yourself what you would feel if you believed as he does? Allow yourself to feel that.
  • And then, go deeper. What else might you feel in his place? For example, yes, you would feel angry if your believed that your spouse was unfaithful. But what else would you feel?
  • There is usually an underlying emotion causing the anger. For example, belief in a spouse’s infidelity is often based on a fear of abandonment.
  • Speak to that emotion, not the words or the actions. This is what you must name and share and deflect. (More about this next week)
The Magic of Self-Awareness. Self-awareness is another tool that focuses on emotion. Although Frank can’t empathize, he is super-sensitive to the emotions of others, and especially his wife, Mary's emotions. He doesn’t see them as hers however. Anything he feels, he owns.

And so if Mary shows up feeling angry at their neighbor, Frank feels her emotion, identifies it correctly as anger and correctly relates it to Mary.

But then, he owns it. That is, Frank’s brain:
  • picks up Mary’s anger as his and, as always,
  • adds a “reason” based on a residual feelings like fear or loss. 
Thus, Frank experiences Mary’s anger at the neighbor as his anger AT HER for something hurtful that he now believes she did to him.

You can avoid passing your negative feelings on to your loved one by being more aware of your own emotions.
  • Routinely check your emotional attitude before you interact with your loved one—or even before you enter a room where your loved one is.
  • What are you feeling? If it is something negative, take a moment to consciously choose something else to focus on.
  • The something else doesn’t have to be super positive, just not negative. (YOU can do this. It isn’t easy, but with practice it gets easier.)
  • When you just can’t stop feeling negative (and no one can all the time!), take feelings into the bathroom or at least, out of the room until you CAN feel more positive.
The next blogs will address other “magical” dementia care partnering tools, including acceptance, apologies and distractions.

For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Responsive Dementia Care: Fewer Behaviors Fewer Drugs
Lewy Body Dementia: A Manual for Staff

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.

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