Nearly 170 guests attended the “Why I do What I do” seminar about Alzheimer’s and dementia, which took place all day Friday at Hensley Hall in the West Jefferson United Methodist Church.
“This disease will win,” said guest speaker Teepa Snow, who stressed to the audience that many need to rethink how they give care to patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“It’s not whether we win or lose, it’s how we play the game,” said Snow.
Snow has gained local, statewide and national recognition for her work in geriatrics and dementia care, according to Cameron Keziah, the director of community relations at Forest Ridge Assisted Living. In fact, she is so well-known, it took an entire year of work and planning to book Snow for a seminar, said Keziah.
“We are very lucky to have someone so educated and so influential,” said Keziah.
Snow said she had three goals for the seminar. Her first goal was to make sure everyone in attendance learned something about dementia they didn’t know before the seminar.
Her second goal was for audience members to build new skills for how to deal with dementia patients. “It doesn’t matter what you know this disease if you don’t change what you do,” said Snow.
Snow said her third goal was to have moments of joy during the seminar. She said “learn to laugh or you’re not going to survive this condition.”
During the seminar, Snow said one of the causes of friction between dementia patients and caregivers is that caregivers often push too hard when trying to help patients. This leads a “fight or flight” response and causes a dementia patient to resist the help of their caregiver.
“When you push, they push back,” said Snow. “When you stop pushing, guess what? They stop pushing too.”
Even though the push is full of good intentions, that isn’t the best way to communicate with a person struggling with dementia. Snow said caregivers often cross boundaries of respect when helping a patient, especially by touching them too often.
As patients progress further in the disease, they begin to lose their senses of sight and hearing. This often leads caregivers to overcompensate by using touch to convey thoughts, but this can be off-putting to patients.
“When someone has dementia, people think it’s okay to touch them. We need to quit this, because it stirs the pot,” said Snow.
For a solution, Snow recommended giving a dementia patient matching visual and verbal cues to get messages across. This way, the caregiver can avoid touching the patient.
Snow also said if you need to touch the patient, you need to rethink how to touch.
Snow offered a method to the audience she called hand-under-hand, where the caregiver clasped hands with the patient, but allowed the patients hand to be on top. This is a subtle way for the caregiver to allow the patient to direct the caregiver’s actions.
To demonstrate how this works, Snow acted out a scene with an audience member where Snow pretended to feed a dementia patient. With the hand-under-hand method, the patient feels like they are in control and are directing the caregiver, when really, the caregiver in initiating the action.
While speaking about other techniques and insights, Snow reminded the audience nothing about this process is perfect, and whatever happens, the caregiver need to respect the decisions made by the patient.
To drive this point home, Snow told a personal story about her struggles with one of her previous dementia patients, a woman in the final stages of the disease named Phyllis. After struggling to feed the elderly woman, Phyllis told Snow that she didn’t like the way she was being treated. Snow said she was shocked by this answer because she had forgotten the patient is still in there deep down.
“But Phyllis,” responded Snow, “if you don’t eat, you’ll die.”
“Honey, I know that,” said Phyllis.
Snow said she then realized that “you’re caring for a shell, but the gem is still inside.”
Even though Phyllis passed away only three days later, Snow said that taught her the most important lesson of all. “Eventually, you need to learn how to let someone go,” said Snow.
Snow then explained to the audience the steps process people go through while grieving, beginning with denial, then moving to anger, bargaining and sadness, before eventually reaching acceptance.
Even though the seminar’s material was serious, Snow managed to keep the audience in good spirits while still informing them about the realities of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Snow has over 30 years of geriatrics experience. She graduated with a major of Zoology at Duke University before obtaining a Masters in Occupational Therapy from UNC Chapel Hill. Her training focuses on giving audience members a first-hand understanding on dementia by role-playing through scenarios that deal with dementia care.