The Love Languages of Alzheimer’s Disease
by Gary Chapman, Debbie Bar, MA & Edward G. Shaw, MD
Wherever the five love languages have been embraced across the United States and around the world, they have revitalized relationships and pulled marriages back from the brink of divorce. Can they also help individuals, couples, and families cope with the devastating diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease? Our answer is an unequivocal yes and this is, in fact, the premise of our book. We believe that the love languages are tools for gently lifting a corner of the dark curtain of dementia, making it possible to sustain an emotional connection with a memory-impaired person. This is a novel idea because the love languages have been successfully utilized almost exclusively in relationships with people who are on equal footing in terms of their ability to both give and receive love. In relationships involving AD, as the disease slowly steals cognition, equal footing is first impaired and ultimately lost. Much of the relational trauma that occurs with AD happens because the person with the disease loses the ability to manage his or her side of the relationship, forcing the emotional connection into choppy and uncharted waters. Yet, while Alzheimer’s disease erases memories by literally erasing brain cells, even AD cannot erase the existence of what Gary calls the “love tank”—metaphorically, an emotional tank waiting to be filled with love. Truly, the deep human need for love does not disappear with a diagnosis of dementia. It remains ingrained in us for as long as we live.
The impact of the love languages is due, in part, to the amygdala, a brain structure not immediately affected by the disease. The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain and plays a key role in emotional memory. It prioritizes our most emotional experiences, assigning them to long-term memory where they are retained. The feeling of being loved can persist even after the actions or words that delivered the love message are forgotten.
Even in late AD, when the amygdala may be affected by the disease, it is our belief that the love languages still “get through.” Just because a person can no longer speak or take initiative does not mean that they no longer perceive love or know when they are being treated with kindness. Despite their difficulty in connecting thoughts, people with dementia are still able to feel deeply.
Our interactions with care partners and individuals with AD have similarly convinced us that the ability to receive emotional love endures far longer than the ability to express it, probably, for most, to the very end of the Alzheimer’s journey. This makes it possible to sustain an emotional connection even with someone in the latter stages of AD. We hasten to add, however, that this kind of emotional connection is unlike any other that bonds people in love relationships. It occurs in the relational paradigm of unequal footing described above. As such, the depth and breadth of the connection lies almost entirely in the hands of the care partner.
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