Learning and Dementia – Rant #537

In the latest issue of Provider magazine, a new Dutch study is highlighted with the following cover teaser: “Alzheimer’s Finding Surprises Researchers”. So of course, I rushed to the article to find out what happened that was so shocking.

Turns out that people with Alzheimer’s can still learn! By testing the memorization of a way-finding route, the researchers found that markers along the route were learned and recognized by the subjects, even though many people living with Alzheimer’s have difficulty with visual-spatial skills.

Radboud University released a statement noting that “We must now dispose of the idea that Alzheimer’s patients are no longer capable of learning.”

What better statement to show how far we have traveled down the wrong road in our view of dementia!! Of course, people with dementia can still learn! We all know this–how can we have possibly convinced ourselves otherwise??

This article shows precisely how our deficit-based model has poisoned our view of people living with dementia, which subsequently affects our ability to care for them and provide true well-being. Tom Kitwood, father of the concept of “positioning”, is no doubt rolling over in his grave. (Kitwood stated that once people are labeled with “dementia”, we automatically “position” people as being less capable than they are, and/or blame everything we see on the disease, rather than looking deeper and seeing the whole person.)

If we look at people living with dementia as whole people, we see that they learn all the time. I often illustrate this to my audiences by saying, “If you think a person with advanced dementia cannot learn new things, try this experiment: Have 3-4 staff members take him to the shower room and force him to have a shower he doesn’t want. Then take him back there a few days later, and see if he has formed a new memory of what happened last time!”

The researchers go on to say that such automatic learning persists even though “conscious learning may well be long gone”, another reductionist view that is patently false. The brain is plastic, and a damaged brain still has plasticity. How else could a person with dementia moving into a care home start calling his primary nurse or aide by name after living there for several weeks? There’s nothing “unconscious” about that type of learning.

It’s time to adopt Dr. Richard Taylor’s view that “I am not dying of a fatal disease; I am living with a chronic disability.” Then, maybe we will stop selling people short and try to help find ways to enable them to succeed throughout their lives.

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One Response to Learning and Dementia – Rant #537

  1. Ida W. Page says:

    I have know this for years but it is very hard to argue with the Alz. org. Thank you for tagging this article.
    Ida Page

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