Can a Psychologist help someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia?

“How can a Psychologist help someone with Alzheimer’s?” “If they have Dementia and can’t remember anything, how can you provide psychotherapy?” As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years of experience in the field of Geriatrics I get this questions a lot. I refer the reader to my Blog on “Why would an elderly person in a nursing home need a Psychologist?” for part of my answer. To start with, I think there are many misconceptions about what I do as a Geropsychologist.  Sometimes I think the person asking me the above questions imagine that I walk around with a portable couch, tell patients to lie down and then ask them to tell me about the relationship they had to their parents. Nothing could be further from the truth as to the work I do. For starters, when I have a new patient I need to conduct an assessment to understand their cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems. Sometimes this includes psychological testing. Most of all, the evaluation helps me to diagnosis what kind of Dementia it is. It is sort of like there are many kinds of cancers. They all have similarities, but each type of Dementia can have a different cause. Moreover, the course of the Dementia and how you go about caring for the patient who has it is different. The psychotherapy then is my follow up treatment. There are all sorts of issues that come up when I am treating someone, but here are just a few of the many questions I have to keep in mind over time. And I mean time, because it takes a while to figure these things out. So, to begin with, did I get my diagnosis right? Is there another psychiatric illness occurring with the Dementia? How fast is the Dementia progressing? How is the patient responding to the psychotropic medications I consulted their Primary Care Physician about? How does the patient respond to the interventions I am using with them? Can I teach these interventions and approaches to caregivers, staff or anyone else who needs to know them so they can use them when I am not around? And probably the most important question I have to ask myself is “What do I need to share with family, friends and loved ones so that I can answer their questions about Dementia, reassure them and help them to understand how I am helping?”

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