Tag Archives: treatments for dementia

Dementia and Diet

When my mom first got a dementia diagnosis, I knew just one way to protect her health: cooking nutritious food. Since dementia has no known cure, my meals were steeped in desperation and love. Yesterday, in a cooking class with an Ayurveda doctor, my ideas about food and healing were confirmed.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Since my mother is tiny and always hungry, I never doubted that good food would help her. But I also believed that feeding her well was a way to transmit compassion. Dr. Shekhar Annambhotla, yesterday’s Ayurveda teacher, fully agreed. “Cooking”, he said,  “is love. You put all of your love into the pot and you share that love with others.”

People in the class raved about his food. Men, women, young, old, vegans and carnivores enjoyed each dish. Local pub crawlers liked the meal as much as the yoga students in the room. As he cooked, the doctor explained how his recipes reflected the principles of Ayurvedic medicine, a health system used in India for thousands of years.

Though I’ve read many articles on Ayurveda, it always seemed too complex for me and nearly impossible to practice. But the class, sponsored by Jim Thorpe Yoga, taught me a lot. First of all, changing to a 100% Ayurvedic life WOULD be hard. However, it’s not that difficult to adopt a 10% approach and build toward 20% if the dietary shift makes you feel good. In fact, the doctor suggested that people take simple steps at first because changing too fast makes it hard to sustain the new habits we’re trying out.

His main advice to me was to eat my biggest daily meal at lunch. My weight’s gone up ten pounds since my mom got sick. Though I walk a lot and practice yoga, age has slowed my metabolism. Shekhar noted that if I eat a bigger meal at mid-day, I’d have enough daylight left for a brisk walk to aid digestion and burn calories. This sounds like something I could achieve without losing my mind or emptying the fridge. The doctor also warned us to avoid lecturing loved ones if they don’t want to change. Preaching may be hard to resist, especially if you start feeling health benefits you’d like your family to share. Caregiver efforts to improve their health can be viewed, instead, as one way of “putting on the oxygen mask before assisting others.” Our well-being will shine through the improved care we offer.

The impulse to preach nearly ruined a chat with my beef-loving boyfriend. When I raved about the delicious Ayurveda food, he asked for a list of ingredients. Coconut oil, he said, was full of saturated fat, very bad for you. (Of course he loves fries and hamburgers!) Then my Internet research pulled up this great New York Times article about coconut oil. It explains the difference between bad coconut oil — the partially hydrogenated stuff full of trans fats — and virgin coconut oil, which has no trans fats and lifts good cholesterol.

Today’s Internet feast of research and opinions makes it nearly impossible to find one health practice approved by all. I would not buy Ayurvedic “medicines” made in other countries. But I do think it’s wise to embrace basic Ayurvedic ideas like cooking your own food and adding more fresh vegetables to each meal. It actually seems a lot like what my grandmother did in the old days, when restaurants were for special occasions and home-made food nourished families through tough times. Is anything tougher than dealing with dementia?

Dementia and the Struggle to Communicate

It used to happen occasionally, but now almost all of my mom’s speech comes out garbled. If I walk up behind her when she’s zoning out, it sounds like she’s speaking an alien language. My standard reply is: “Yes, of course.”

Smoke on the Water

Foggy morning, Henning Pond

“Of course” is one of Mom’s favorite expressions. It’s a phrase she likes to hear from me. But most times I have no idea what I’m affirming when I say it. I try hard to understand her crazy words from context, but when she gets that distant look in her eye, I don’t know what part of her galaxy she’s discussing. My sister thinks our mom is remembering old conversations. She’s heard our mother mention the names of her siblings when she’s in these trances. That may be true at times, but more often I find myself  scanning the room, trying to discover what’s prompting her talk.

Mom’s language sounds like the babble of children who speak before they know words. They point at things, their eyes light up. Their sincerity animates every little thing they struggle to say. And my mom is a very tiny lady who can be cute as a three-year old when she starts telling you one of her stories.

She makes me remember when I was a little kid. I think I became a “writer” when she gave me my first crayons and some blank construction paper. The letters of the alphabet were still a mystery to me, but I had my own set of scribbles that I used to create “words.” My stories were mainly about Blackie, the puppy we had when I was still too young for school. She listened while I “read” her the symbols she couldn’t decipher, completely unaware that she was launching a career.

Mom’s stories today, however, are not about puppies and I’m afraid that I could misinterpret her. What if she’s trying to tell me about a problem or a pain? She’s still got dental issues that we don’t know how to treat — and her sluggish digestive tract is a chronic preoccupation. There might be other matters, too, that we haven’t noticed and she can’t explain to us.

The master reference book for caregivers, The 36-Hour Day, recommends that caregivers ask specific questions to try to narrow communications down to their simplest form. Authors Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins suggest pointing at body parts and asking, “Does this hurt?” or “Do you hurt?” instead of using a more general question. They also observe that people with dementia communicate better when they are relaxed. So it’s important to appear calm (even if you’re not) and make it easier for them to express important thoughts.

When in doubt, I use the hug method if I feel I haven’t gotten the true gist of her words. The slow, simple hug is 100% effective at settling her down. Once she is calm, I can tell more accurately if there is something weird provoking her. Hugs are basic human medicine that can be administered anytime, at no cost. They help many dementia patients relax enough to communicate. Imagine where we’d be if drugs ever achieve that kind of success rate.