People In The Woods.

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If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching HBO’s documentary, “The Memory Loss Tapes.” It’s a feature length film, but it is worth watching. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be astounded, and you’ll cry some more. The documentary follows people in different stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and documents their successes and struggles. I’ve seen this film many times, but perhaps one of the most salient moments involves a woman who has begun to hallucinate.

Hallucinations are not uncommon among people with dementia. Recently I talked to a spouse who had brought her loved one to live at Clare Bridge. “He was seeing people,” she said. “He saw them in the woods near our house, even in the trees.” Although this sounds frightening to someone without dementia, imagine how scary and realistic it would be for someone with memory problems. “He even started to see people in our house. That’s when I realized I couldn’t look after him anymore,” she said.

Whenever I hear about cases like this, I think of the HBO documentary. One of the women in the film believed that her wheelchair was covered in snakes. “They’re here!” she’d scream. “They’re all over the chair! One is crawling on me, get it, GET IT!” she cried. One of the Resident Assistants went to her with a tissue and began “squashing” the invisible snakes. The woman in the chair calmed down immediately. “Here, we got you a new seat,” the Resident Assistant said, transferring her to a different wheelchair.

Without the aid of medications, the best thing that you can do for your loved one with dementia is to understand the fear that he or she is coping with. Imagine how terrifying and frustrating it would be to hear someone say, “There’s nothing there. You’re seeing something that’s not real.” The Resident Assistant in the documentary did a wonderful job of embracing her resident’s reality and solving the problem.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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