DEAR ABBY: The Alzheimer's Association and other medical sources estimate that nearly 50 percent of people over the age of 85 will suffer from Alzheimer's disease. I believe that spouses of foreign-born men and women, who are part of the 50 percent, will face the added difficulty of communicating with their wives and husbands.
As Alzheimer's disease gradually erases the memory of the patient, starting with the present and going back chronologically to his or her childhood, the use of English or other second languages disappears.
It is important for caregivers who speak only the second language to learn enough of the patient's first language so they can communicate in basic words and phrases. I didn't, and am now faced with the complication of trying to understand the wants and needs of a French-speaking wife. Within the past six months she has regressed from all English to 75 percent French, and the change increases daily. Over the past 50 years, she has often complained that she has lost her French almost entirely. She is as fluent today as she has ever been.
Last week, as my wife started to wake up one morning, I put my arms around her with our heads ear to ear. She thought I was her deceased sister. For 45 minutes she talked (in French) about when they were youngsters, and she mentioned her mother, father, brother, nuns, friends and places they had been. She was feeling such joy! Finally, she drifted back to sleep. When she awakened, she bubbled over with excitement as she told me of the wonderful time she had reminiscing with her sister. Such moments may be rare, but they are unforgettable and treasured.
I deeply regret the years I rationalized that I couldn't pronounce French properly, didn't have time to learn it, didn't need it and saw no future need for it. So, start learning that foreign language now. The younger you are when you begin, the easier and more rapidly you'll become fluent in your spouse's first language. -- RICHARD IN EVERETT, WASH.
DEAR RICHARD: That's valuable advice, regardless of the mental condition of one's spouse. However, the problem you have raised pertaining to people with Alzheimer's disease is a serious one.
Growing numbers of foreign-born seniors in major cities across the country have made it increasingly important that culturally appropriate services reflect changing demographics. Being able to communicate with the patient is crucial for a reliable diagnosis. For everyday care, families need to learn to rely on non-verbal communication -- facial expressions, touch and body language.
How to meet the needs of a diverse and frail population that speaks limited English is an issue of concern in today's caregiving community, and it will become even more so in the future. The Alzheimer's Association can provide caregivers with suggestions to improve communication. The toll-free number is (800) 272-3900.