As a person progresses through the stages of dementia, we know that the disease allows them to access long term memories more frequently than short term memories.
So how does this work when someone has learned English as their second language?
We often see that a person who is multi-lingual with dementia that is entering the middle stage will revert to their primary language or the language that they grew up with. Imagine having dementia and then experiencing everyone around you speaking a foreign language!
There are a few things that caregivers can do to deal with when this situation occurs:
- Surround the person who has dementia with all things (pictures, mementos, speech) that relate to their primary language.
- If family and friends can, ask them to communicate as much as possible in the preferred language of the person with dementia.
- Resist the urge to correct the person to speak "your language"--you need to enter their world, not fight it.
- If your person is in a health care facility. work with the staff to create a communication board that contains pictures of common tasks along with the word(s) for it in the other language. Sometimes pronunciations are also included on the board to make it easier for staff. Be sure to use the slang or familiar word that your family member used. If they never referred to a bathroom as a "toilet", why would you do that now?
- Don't panic at this sudden behavioral change. Like all things with dementia, acceptance is key.
I witnessed a great language "awakening" yesterday as a new resident on our dementia unit (originally from Scotland) crossed paths with one of our staff members, who by coincidence, also grew up in Scotland. Our staff member heard the accent of the resident and immediately began helping her with reassuring communication about foods from her country and other slang references. The reaction from the resident was so positively strong, just by connecting in her language of origin.
Has anyone experienced this with their loved one or as a caregiver in a facility? Would love to hear from you.