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Dementia and the Warrior–How veterans are uniquely affected by Alzheimer’s and other dementia

By Luciana Mitzkun
Family Services Director, Friendship Center

The course of Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive dementia takes the patient on a journey that can be equated to time travel. Memories fade starting with the most recent ones, and gradually older memories become affected as well. As a result, patients travel emotionally back in time, often reliving past events as if they were current. Past accomplishments and sorrows, long resolved relationships, jobs and responsibilities, traumas, victories, and defeats: all these experiences and the feelings they elicit return with renewed strength when dementia turns back the clock.

Alzheimer’s is the major cause of dementia in the U.S., affecting over five million Americans. Additionally, there is an estimated three million dementia cases related to other conditions. Although all people, regardless of background, are at risk for developing dementia, the effects of this devastating condition are unique to each individual–unique not only because we all have our own medical issues, but also because each of us has followed a unique path throughout our lives. We bring to our experience of dementia all the experiences we’ve amassed throughout our lives.

As the emotional clock ticks back to earlier years, veterans living with dementia may find themselves reliving their service years. All the feelings associated with that time of life return in full force. Depending on the severity of the stress experienced during their service, veterans may now suffer from strong behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD).

Many veterans with dementia feel trapped in a state of war from which they cannot emerge. Time has been turned back and they are now stuck in their worse day, like in a cruel Groundhog Day loop. They relieve the trauma and feelings such as anxiety, suspiciousness, fear, loneliness, and the urge to fight back. All the issues that may have resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) return to stay, and the veteran is unable to shake them off.

Patients cannot control these emotions. PTSD-therapy does not work in this case because dementia has robbed them of cognitive abilities necessary to process it. Many times, these emotions manifest in the form of acts of self-isolation, resistance to care, agitation, and suspiciousness. It is a hard place to be stuck in, both for the patients and for the ones who love them.

Families of veterans with dementia must learn to understand the uniqueness of their experience and work closely with doctors and professional caregivers to alleviate these symptoms. Medications can take the edge off of the most severe symptoms, but must be administered with extreme caution and under the strict supervision of a qualified medical specialist. Other helpful interventions include social activities in nurturing settings and adoption of a daily routine, each of which bring a sense of safety, acceptance, and belonging to the patients. Promoting positive feelings helps demote negative ones.

Veterans in Santa Barbara find the nurturing social setting they need to combat BPSD at Friendship Center. Attendance at our day program brings them the stability they need to feel safe and suppress PTSD-related symptoms. Here they find new friends and camaraderie among other Friendship Center members while receiving constant nurturing and loving attention from our dedicated staff. We understand what they are going through and work closely with veterans’ families to provide them with a great experience in our day program, so they feel valued and respected. Here they find an array of different activities to keep them engaged and feeling productive. We also offer our veterans with a support group that utilizes the power of humor to counteract possible underlying negative feelings. We keep reminding them that the present is a safe place to be, that they are loved, and appreciated.

Our services are supported by the Veterans Administration for qualifying veterans, and we assist families through the simple application process. For veterans, our center is an oasis from a world of confusion. For their families, we are the trusted respite that keeps all from defeat to dementia.

Our warriors deserve the best. Contact Friendship Center to learn more about the help we offer.

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