Comfort care takes low-tech approach to Alzheimer’s
Volunteers Joan Maxwell (left) of Chicago, and Anne Bogacki of Park Ridge, sing to Central Baptist Village resident Peggy Bowman, who suffers from Alzheimer's, at Central Baptist Village. | Michael Jarecki~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 12, 2012 11:34AM
NORRIDGE — Going low-tech is the new way to treat an illness that affects an increasing number of people.
Estimates vary, but experts suggest as many as 5.4 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the national Alzheimer’s Association.
Among older adults, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a loss of brain function affecting memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior, according to the National Institute on Aging.
In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60. Common behavioral symptoms include sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, anger and depression.
While psychotropic drugs are used in many cases, those who provide care are learning to manage behavior without using drugs. Leading the trend is Rainbow Hospice, a non-profit organization based in Mount Prospect.
Dan Kuhn of Rainbow Hospice said the agency has seen an increase in the number of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
“Twenty-five percent will call care facilities their final home,” he said.
Working with Rainbow Hospice to promote “comfort care” is Central Baptist Village in Norridge.
“Comfort care for advanced dementia is hard to explain,” said Dawn Zimmerman, assistant administrator at Central Baptist. “It’s more of a feeling of how to help late-stage dementia patients make that transition.”
Comfort care requires caregivers to provide different programs to patients, depending on individual needs. It requires staff to try different things until they can determine how to communicate non-verbally, whether it be through music, touch or smell.
“We find new cues, through the senses,” Zimmerman said. “A person may not remember, but can connect through music.
“It’s low-tech stuff.”
With training from Rainbow Hospice, Central Baptist staff learned how to use different tools to connect with those patients who struggle to communicate. One of the biggest decisions for someone with late-stage Alzheimer’s is whether the person standing in front of him is a friend or a foe, said Julie Stevens, Central Baptist sales and marketing director.
“We need to communicate quickly,” she said. “You can do that with a big, friendly smile that makes them feel safe, special.”
Saying, “It’s time for lunch” might not mean anything to someone who struggles to communicate. But a caregiver can connect through smell by popping popcorn.
“The person connects that to eating,” Stevens said. “It’s re-routing communication to a different part of the brain.”
Something as simple as tossing a ball back and forth could spark a patient who hasn’t spoken in months.
“You have to find what speaks to that person,” Stevens said. “That makes the staff communicate with those different parts of their brains, too.”
These techniques and the comfort care philosophy are something family members can learn, Stevens said.
“By using these techniques, the goal is to reduce the anxiety and therefore the need for psychotropic drugs to control behavior,” she said.
Comfort care also reaches out to families of those with dementia. The program helps families determine what conditions require hospitalization and which ones don’t. It also explains to family what changes to expect and how to deal with them, Zimmerman added.
Kuhn said comfort care’s goal is to improve the quality of care and the environment for the dying.
“It used to be, all that was expected for people with dementia was to keep them clothed, fed and dry,” he said. “Now, it’s more about meeting emotional and social needs.”