NOTE: On February 2nd from 10:00 a.m. 11:00 a.m. at the Sedona Community Center located at 2615 Melody Lane in Sedona, dementia educator and consultant, Karen Walker, will be leading an interactive, one hour class called “Putting together pieces of the Dementia Puzzle—Groundhog’s Day Survival Guide for Care”. More Info→
By Karen Walker
(February 1, 2019)
Have you ever delved deeply into a creative project and then after finishing, felt a bit disoriented and surprised that so much time has passed? This feeling of excess right brain activity can be experienced like a slight “hangover”. Artists are often right-brain dominant and have been stereotyped as “flakey”, “spacey” or “out in the zone somewhere”. So what do artists have in common with a person living with dementia?
When dementia strikes, even the most linear, logical, and articulate individuals, lose function on the left side of the brain and retain function on the right side of the brain with language being on the left and rhythm on the right. The right hemisphere is also in charge of spatial abilities, face recognition and processing music. While the left hemisphere processes what you hear and handles most of the duties of speaking. And when you need facts, your left brain pulls it from your memory.
Now if you were to drop in and visit a memory care unit, adult day center or a nursing facility, you would see life enrichment programs underway. Whether they are conscious of it or not, the activity leaders traditionally focus on skills that use the right side of the brain by leading sing-a-longs, rhythm bands, seated dancing, and art classes to name a few. The outcome of these activities often proves that it is never too late for the right side of the brain to learn a new skill. In one facility, gathered around a table are a mix of residents including a college professor, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a surgeon and a farmer to name a few. Today they are all enjoying a painting class while listening to Mozart.
One lady, Rose age 93, a lifetime schoolteacher and leader within the Girl Scout Organization lives in this facility with vascular dementia. She was an athlete as a young adult and suffered several head injuries. She rarely smiles and can be very mean at times. Today is Rose’s first painting class ever and she jumps into painting a mountain and lake landscape as if she has been an artist all along, and the finished piece is impressionistic and lovely. After the class she is unusually talkative and alert. She also eats more dinner than she has in months. Her daughter is pleased and wonders what it was that “perked up Mom.”
With a positive approach to care the goal is to continue to see the person, not the dementia, and to focus on what is left, not what is lost. Studies show that activity in this “working part of the brain” can ignite activity or “light up” other parts of the brain momentarily, and the individual living with dementia can experience a full brain moment. These moments don’t last but are to be savored.
Gertrude offers us another example. She used to be a stage tap dancer in NYC as a child. She too is in her early 90’s, living with mid stage Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. She has lost a lot of language and walking is difficult. However, one day the life enrichment leader of an adult day center plays a CD by Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn and “Gertie” pushes her walker away, steps out onto the floor, and fires off some quick staccato tap dance steps. Staff races towards her, sure that she will come tumbling down like Humpty Dumpty. However, her balance is perfect, her poise is perfect and her steps are perfect. She stops dancing, looks around at the stunned onlookers and says, “You know I was really something in my day!”
Sometimes right-brain dominant people can irritate the heck out of dominant left-brain people. They are difficult to control and do what they feel like in the moment. Welcome to the life of the caregiver and someone living with dementia. The caregiver has to organize the schedule, pay the bills, run a household and keep appointments. While the person with dementia just craves some right brain stimulation but none of the above activities offer that. The outcome is tension on both sides!
So, if the person living with dementia is primarily operating from the right side of their brain, wouldn’t it benefit any caregiver to activate the right side of their brain also? Might the integrity of the relationship improve through a willingness to suspend fixed views on how the mind “should” operate? Granted, caregivers both clinical and family, are challenged by the complexities that come from people living with dementia, however implementing a few new brain synchronization exercises may relieve some of the stress of the daily routine. Basic duties still stand but with the right brain switched on; a caregiver can feel more relaxed and playful during the process, even slipping into whistling or humming, a huge plus for the person living with dementia.
In closing, caregivers may find that they are able to increase moments of joy and when they release mental restrictions about time, identity and space. It is all about staying in balance: left brain for balancing the check book, right brain for balancing your stress level. So “whistle while you work” like Snow White in the Seven Dwarves, and “it won’t take long when there’s a song to help you set the pace”.
Open the hyperlink below to connect to some simple exercises that can help you create hemispheric balance in your own brain.