Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” While her words offer insight for any relationship, they apply in a special way to those with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
People with AD can recall emotional aspects of something even if they can no longer recall the facts. Because of this, the feeling of being loved can persist well after they forget the actions or words that delivered the message of love.
That’s why the five love languages are so helpful when AD invades a relationship. The love languages communicate in ways that make an emotional impact when the memory fails. These simple “love tools” can be used by anyone who wants to emotionally connect with a parent, grandparent, friend or neighbor with AD.
The Five Love Languages and Alzheimer's
Everyone has at least one emotional language or communication channel that makes him or her feel especially loved. This is true even for those with AD, because the need for love doesn’t disappear with a diagnosis of dementia. The love languages of Alzheimer’s are slightly modified versions of the originals (first published in a book by Gary Chapman). They are:
- Physical Touch: Expressive touch, such as holding hands or stroking the hair, or task-oriented touch, such as assisting with bathing or dressing
- Quality Moments: Giving someone your undivided attention (an adaptation of Quality Time, because as memory fades, life is experienced only in moments)
- Gifts: Purchased, found or handmade tangible tokens of love
- Words of Affirmation: Compliments or words of kindness and encouragement
- Acts of Kindness: Anything done to preserve a person’s dignity or make them feel useful; for example, including a person in a conversation even though he can’t contribute or asking him to “help” by folding towels (an adaptation of Acts of Service)
Focus on speaking the primary love language of the person with AD. (If you’re not sure which one(s) apply, you can find diagnostic quizzes in the book “Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade.”) Expressing this love language can meet unspoken emotional needs and ease frustration, potentially improving behavior. When behavior improves, the caregiver’s load is lightened.
Putting Them Into Practice
So how do you use a love language to reach out to a person with AD? For instance, if your grandfather’s love language is Words of Affirmation, you can:
- Brag about him to others while he is present.
- Tell him you are proud of the things he accomplished in life.
- If he asks the same question over and over, answer respectfully and patiently, responding each time as if the question were being asked for the first time.
- Tell him that you have taken care of everything.
- Tell him he looks handsome, even if he’s wearing the same clothes he wore the day before.
Combining Your Love Languages
Sometimes, especially in late-stage AD, love languages are best used in combination. For example, consider how three love languages impacted Ingrid.
Ingrid’s AD had progressed to the point that her family could no longer care for her at home. Though she was quite impaired, she was acutely aware she would soon have to leave her home and live in a memory care facility. Overwhelmed by grief and fear, Ingrid was sobbing as I sat down beside her.
Coming alongside her in this time of personal crisis was an intangible expression of Gifts, known as “the gift of presence.” As she sobbed, I gently rubbed her back (an expression of Physical Touch). I said little, except to address her sense of having been rejected by her family. Softly, I spoke Words of Affirmation: “Your husband loves you. Your daughter loves you. You are so loved.” Ingrid continued to sob, and I consoled her in this fashion for about half an hour.
When Ingrid’s husband came and I stood to leave, Ingrid accepted my hug (Physical Touch again). I had no further expectations. AD increasingly robs a person of the ability to respond and love you back in traditional ways.
I was surprised when this grieving woman with advanced AD, for whom English was a second language, now spoke directly to me. With great emotion, she said haltingly, “You … are … wonderful.” Clearly, Ingrid deeply felt the love and support I communicated to her via the love languages of Gifts, Physical Touch and Words of Affirmation.
The five love languages are easy to understand and simple to use. They work because, even in severe AD, people like Ingrid are still very emotionally alive.
About the Author
Debbie Barr is a health-and-wellness writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in health education. A master certified health education specialist (MCHES), she co-authored “Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: The 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey,” with Gary Chapman, Ph.D., and Edward Shaw, M.D.