April 22, 2010

USA: Many Alzheimer’s Patients Find Comfort in Books

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NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Health / April 22, 2010


Many Alzheimer’s Patients Find Comfort in Books

By MILT FREUDENHEIM

Familiar music can engage those with Alzheimer’s when almost nothing else can, researchers have shown. Now it appears that books written for these patients may have a similar effect.

Researchers have found in a number of studies that reading can improve a patient’s quality of life. The meanings of written sentences can be understood by — and prompt cogent responses from — even those who have difficulty handling verbal exchanges.

Caregivers may be surprised to learn that reading ability is not always destroyed by Alzheimer’s. “All of my research demonstrates that people who were literate maintain their ability to read until the end stages of dementia,” said Michelle S. Bourgeois, a professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State University.

At the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, many literate patients may still enjoy reading books themselves, said Dr. Barry Reisberg, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Fisher Alzheimer’s program at New York University. Large-type reading materials can be used to assist later-stage Alzheimer’s patients to continue reading.

Even at later stages of the disease, many patients are engaged by books read to them. Lydia Burdick, a businesswoman in New York, was able to get her mother to respond by reading to her even at a relatively late stage of Alzheimer’s disease, although it had long been hard to get through to her.

One afternoon she persuaded her mother to read a sentence — “I love to feel the sunshine on my face” — and asked, “How does the sun feel?”

“Warm,” her mother said, and both women smiled.

Ms. Burdick went on to write three books for caregivers to read aloud to, or with, “memory-challenged” adults.

Books published for children and young adults may be easy to read, but they can be off-putting for people with Alzheimer’s. “If they see something as being childish, you have lost them,” Dr. Reisberg said.

The illustrations in Ms. Burdick’s books are based on realistic watercolors of white-haired men and women and their families, created by artist Jane Freeman, a friend of Ms. Burdick. The messages are clear and upbeat. “In November, I am thankful for so many things,” she writes. “In December, I celebrate the holidays. Let’s sing a song.”

“It is not just reading anything,” Ms. Burdick said. “It has to be personally relevant to the person, and the size of the print has to be big enough for them to see it.” Suggestions for starting a conversation and appropriate songs for each page are listed at the end of two of the books.

“I used to buy children’s books with big pictures, big words, about animals for my mother, who has advanced dementia,” said Jill Eikenberry, a New York-based actress. “Now to be able to have a book with pictures and words with somebody her age sitting on a chair enjoying the sunset — it’s a really inspired idea.”

Dr. Peter V. Rabins, director of geriatric psychiatric programs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said, “Anything that helps make it easier for people to interact produces benefits in both directions — the family member with the disease and the caregiver. It gives the person with the disease a chance to interact with grandkids or younger children,” he said. “It’s positive both ways.” [rc]

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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