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When Words Fail



The world of language is beautiful. Until it is not. The frustration that people experience when they have cognitive issues can be formidable. Imagine wanting to communicate, and the words that come out of your mouth bear little resemblance from what you wanted to express!

Whatever the medical explanation is, it affects most dementia patients. Even at its beginning stages it creates some difficulties in communicating. When full blown it can cause a total shutdown of conversation from spouses to those around them. Not being able to speak as eloquently as they once did does not imply that they cannot understand what is being said to them, this varies as well. This is such a complicated condition. Each individual is in some spheres unique, and in others follows a pattern. Nothing is truly predictable There are no rule books. We write our own as we plod through our days of caregiving.

This morning Hubby announced that he had dropped his ginger cookie into his coffee. A detailed search of the cup, yielded no remains. Do cookies evaporate when they have contact with liquid? We looked on the floor and in his lap for the missing cookie to no avail.

As part of the morning routine, there are four pills that are to be taken before breakfast. Hubby looked in the little plastic cup and low and behold, he noticed that there were only three! I realized what had just happened. Hubby had dropped one pill into the coffee, but said it was a cookie. A quick look into the coffee cup indeed discovered a pill quickly dissolving in the warm brew. Hubby had been correct that he had dropped something in his coffee, but the word which he emoted was the wrong one. Even as we searched for a cookie instead of a pill, he did not self-correct the message. Ironically, he was able to look at the little plastic cup and tell me that a pill was missing. He was right.

The section of the brain which was unable to find the correct word when needed was impaired. And yet, another portion of the brain was in full function when it came to analyzing his pills. So interesting! This is yet again, another indication that with dementia one cannot presume that the patient is limited on all fronts.

When Hubby took his now-infamous five indoor falls in a two-week period, he was not only “black and blue” all over, but had a large swelling on each hip. I would have called them “lumps.” Hubby decided to use the word “patch.” “Be careful of my patches!”, he proclaimed, each time he had a shower or needed assistance of any sort. It is interesting, that while he could not access a “proper” word for his bumps on each hip, he adopted a new one. He still uses that same word two weeks later. His brain has replaced the old word with the new one. Permanently.

If one listens carefully and spends substantial time with their spouse or loved one, a new vocabulary will begin to emerge. The accessible words will be repeated and will replace the inaccessible ones. Trying to remind Hubby of the “correct word” has little purpose. It no longer exists in his dictionary.

Whether it is a blockage of blood flow to certain parts of the brain, or a chemical imbalance which makes it hard to access words for your loved one, really doesn’t matter. The bottom line, is that it cannot be reversed.

For visitors, the conversations can be confusing. Words are often used in a context that is unusual. For those who live with the person who is chatting away, a pattern can be detected, if one has the patience to devote to this new project.

My fascination with this condition is unending. Dissecting these incidents definitely helps me to cope with the more difficult ones.

When Hubby wants to ask for a toasted pita for breakfast, the word escapes him each time, so he motions with his fingers in a circle. Something round. Yes, we do understand.

Actually, Hubby loves to talk and “hold court.” With no “filter” he can be very interesting, and surprises abound. Communication is really important to him, so much so that he wants, no, he expects, your full attention at all times.

For many, this inability to pull the right word out of their memory, is very upsetting. A friend’s spouse in the early stages of memory loss, is an academic with a PHD in counseling. Words were always his lifeline. His wife shared, that when they fail him- he sometimes says “I am stupid.” She reminds him that he is and always was “brilliant!” It is simply that his memory is letting him down a bit. This couple is at the beginning of their journey into this new and complicated world. Hearing her experiences, reminds me of those I had many years ago.

Hubby is not deterred from trying to communicate. He shares his thoughts non-stop, and when my head sometimes is a jumble from the words he has substituted, his ego comes shining through: “What’s wrong with you!!??” he loves to declare. “Aren’t you paying attention?!” He is quite content to blame me for my lack of attention and inability to understand him. It all requires patience beyond my own meager resources.

Sometimes I can be, and sometimes I cannot be, patient. The first time he reads me his list of medications for the morning, I may be listening. The fourth or fifth time I may have retreated into my shell like a Tortoise who does not want to face whatever is bombarding it!

I have a fabulous idea for an ambitious inventor: A robot which once it hears a question answered, will automatically supply the same answer every time the question is repeated! I would buy the stock if you want to patent the idea! Mr. Google says that there are approximately fifty million world-wide sufferers from various forms of dementia with ten million new cases per year. A veritable goldmine!

Fleeting across my memory are the many times that Hubby used to recite long speeches from Shakespeare. While he and his friends did not have the benefit of higher education in London during World War II, they studied everything that literature had on offer. They competed with one another, who knew the most Shakespeare by heart? Hubby’s adoration of language was part of his glamorous and amorous appeal. This young girl from Arlington Virginia had never been wooed with Shakespeare before.

Language is such a special friend…and we never want our friends to depart.

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Barbara Diamond is a journalist living in Jerusalem, Israel. She has been a political activist on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people for over fifty years, having participated in political and humanitarian missions to Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, China, and Europe to meet with world leaders on matters of concern. She has written over 100 articles for the Jerusalem Post and on her blog at The Times of Israel, hosted an English radio talk show in Jerusalem and continues mentoring others to pass on the torch of responsibility. You can reach her at [email protected] and visit her site at