‘Dementia whisperer’ brings knowledge to Issaquah caregivers

Dementia expert Laura Wayman of Roseville, California starts every one of her training workshops with the story of Peggy and Jack.

Peggy and Jack had been married for six decades when Jack started showing signs of dementia. Having raised five kids and over 20 foster kids, Peggy was a skilled caregiver and not one to ask for help. Even as her husband’s health took a downturn, Peggy insisted to her grown children, who were scattered across the U.S., that she was doing fine.

One night, Peggy sat down to dinner with Jack and collapsed from a heart attack. Jack did not process what was going on, and told the neighbors that Peggy was “sleeping on the floor.” By the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late; Peggy had died of sheer physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.

“Peggy was my mother,” explains Wayman, her eyes welling with tears. “And that’s why I’m here giving this talk today.”

After seeing firsthand the toll that caring for a loved one with memory loss had taken on her mother, Wayman, who has a degree in gerontology, made it her mission to travel around the U.S. giving seminars to doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, nursing home employees and anyone else who is interested in becoming dementia-aware.

“This is my passion … There are still not enough of us who are dementia-aware,” Wayman, also known as the “Dementia Whisperer,” told the Reporter.

On Sept. 13, Wayman gave a training session to Aegis Living of Issaquah as part of a Seattle-area tour. Later that same day, she trained around 80 nurses at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and on Sept. 16, spoke to a crowd from around King County at the Alzheimer’s Caregiver Conference in Tacoma.

“I had the wonderful opportunity to help the community of Issaquah become dementia-aware,” said Wayman, who is the author of “A Loving Approach to Dementia Care” and “The Encyclopedia of Dementia Care for the Professional Caregiver.” “Family members have to have these resources to become dementia-aware.”

At her seminars, she condenses the basics of dementia awareness in an hour and a half, especially with the goal of reaching those in the medical profession. Doctors and nurses, she said, have to be re-taught about dementia because they tend to approach dementia patients from an entirely clinical perspective, forgetting that “their emotions and feelings don’t go away.”

She compared the lack of dementia awareness in today’s society to the HIV/AIDS emergence in the 1980s.

“Twenty-five years ago we were AIDS-unaware,” Wayman said. Now, “we are in dementia-denial and our society is not giving millions of people the tools they need.”

Wayman described a person with dementia as having a “broken thinker.” A dementia patient’s everyday life, she said, is similar to the feeling of waking up from a nightmare and still being half-asleep — except for that the person does not return to normal brain function capability to process sights and sounds around them.

The biggest mistake that loved ones make, according to Wayman, is trying to “stop, fix or change” the behavior of the person with dementia. For the person with the broken thinker, being made to try to think is “like having two broken legs and trying to be a track star.” The result is paranoia, anxiety and increased confusion.

“Never stop, fix or change — learn to manage it,” Wayman stressed.

Caregivers should also avoid asking the person with dementia questions, even the most basic-seeming inquiries, such as how their day is going. Positive-action statements, such as stating what a lovely day it is, are far less likely to cause harm.

“When you ask questions, it causes a bit of anxiety,” Wayman explained. “Ask less questions, give them less options and instead make positive action statements.”

Rather than saying, “Do you want to have dinner?” a caregiver should say, “Come and eat with me.” This leaves less room for confusion and does not pressure the patient to have to search their brain for an answer.

“The more we do that, the less we make them think and the more safe, secure and loved they feel,” Wayman said.

Although the most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, there are at least 100 other causes, including strokes, alcohol, illicit drugs, lead poisoning and pharmaceutical drugs such as atropine, which is used in general anesthesia.

Because the disease varies so widely for each person, Wayman said that there is no “cookie-cutter” method for treating dementia. One person might fare best in an assisted living facility, while for another person, being treated at home by an in-home professional may be the better option.

“Every dementia care plan is individualized to the person’s needs,” Wayman said. “That’s why we have to have so many fingers in the pie, so many people who are dementia-aware.”

What does tend to be universal with dementia cases is the extreme pressure felt by caregivers like Peggy. Wayman has seen these caregivers quit their jobs, stop seeing friends and “completely give up on themselves” until “eventually they’re left without any kind of life.”

A shocking statistic Wayman shared is that 68 percent of dementia caregivers die before the person they are treating.

“I see it affect the health and well-being of those people,” Wayman said. At Aegis of Issaquah, she met a woman who has been caring for both of her parents and will herself now be going to the hospital to have blocked arteries operated on.

The goal is for no other family to go through the heartbreaking experience of Peggy’s early demise. When asked if she believes she has saved lives, Wayman said she “believe[s] it with all my heart.”

“I work hard at this because I believe it’s also necessary,” Wayman said.

To learn more about Wayman’s journey to becoming dementia-aware, visit www.lauraway man.com.