The Role of Status in Alzheimer’s disease Interactions

As we love this article posted by Evan Bass on his blog, we have asked him permission to share it. And we love it because it talks about something very common in the relationship between family members or caregivers and people with Alzheimer’s: the difficult balance between taking a responsible role to someone who loses her capacities, and giving her all the respect that she deserves.

The Role of Status (Relative Social Position) in Alzheimer’s disease Interactions. Posted by Evan Bass

When approaching relationships in the context of improv theatre, it is essential to keep in mind how your status relates to the other person’s. Is the character you are playing higher, lower, or of equal status in relationship to the other? A butler is lower status to the person he or she is serving. Two butlers are essentially equal status—unless one is the butler in charge and the other is his subordinate. There is definitely a higher and lower status in the roles of a father with his young child. Each interaction we have with others reflects a specific status relationship.

Status is not a passive condition; it affects how we talk to and act with someone else. In general, a person of higher status may “talk down” to someone of lower status, and may not necessarily feel he or she needs to listen well to the other. Someone of lower status almost always listens well to the person with higher status, often attempting to placate him or her. Two people of equal status generally demonstrate mutual respect for each other.

We rarely think about this concept day-to-day, it is almost intuitive, but it is always present. When performing improv in front of an audience, improvisers who want to create believable relationships and situations need to actively think about status in every interaction. So how does this transfer to Alzheimer’s and why is it important? How you relate to someone living with Alzheimer’s—how you enact your status relationship—significantly changes how your interaction plays out.

Try to recall how you felt in an interaction where you assumed you were equal in status with someone, only to find that person “talking down” to you. It immediately makes you feel like you have lost control and, by the end of the interaction, you feel less important. It is natural for a caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s to feel the need to “take care of” and “protect” the person in times of confusion. When this “protector” takes charge and starts making all the decisions, it results in that person in charge adopting the “higher status” role in the situation and naturally “talking down” to the person being cared for.

While every care partner takes special consideration to avoid treating the person with Alzheimer’s like a child—infantilizing him or her—we inadvertently assume the higher decision-maker status and infantilize without meaning to. An individual who once had control over his life can be lead to feel inferior if that control is completely taken away from him or her. 

Parents of very young children usually dress them, feed them, and make decisions for them while rarely asking the child’s permission for all of the decisions made on his or her behalf. Those with Alzheimer’s are often treated this way as well—having others make most decisions for them. Being grown persons, they not only lose much of the control they once had but also acutely feel that loss.

Returning to the question of relative status and its effect on the person with Alzheimer’s, clearly making decisions for those with Alzheimer’s without asking permission and without getting consent, exerts status dominance over the person. Not surprisingly, then, individuals with Alzheimer’s withdraw from such interactions and communication.

An amazingly simple way to counteract unintended infantilization is to approach every interaction with the idea of “status” in mind. Always treat an individual living with Alzheimer’s as EQUAL to or HIGHER status than you. This means always asking permission before acting on their behalf and never making decisions for them without asking for their consent. This includes, of course, never treating them in a way that would ever be construed as disrespectful (i.e. doing something to that person like dressing them, feeding them, or putting them to bed without their permission). A person can still respectfully help someone in daily tasks, even going to the toilet, by asking permission and allowing the other to do as much as she can herself—giving control back to her (or him).

To ask permission means asking a question, and questions can be overwhelming and cause confusion in those with Alzheimer’s. However it is not questions themselves that are confusing, but rather how the questions are presented that cause the problem. While complex sentences and open-ended questions can cause confusion, avoiding questions altogether leads to removing all control from an individual with Alzheimer’s.

In the Scripted-IMPROV study and the “I’m Still Here” approach, we generally find that asking simple, often binary questions —that is, questions in which two possible answers are provided (e.g., “Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?”) – creates a sense of control for the individual with Alzheimer’s. By making the request simple enough for the individual with Alzheimer’s to fully understand and respond, the individual maintains control. You offer the options. They make the choice.

The other type of question that enables the person responding to maintain control is one that allows them to answer with a simple yes or no response. “Let’s eat some breakfast. Would you like that?” is such a question. You first set up the goal in a very simple way, but instead of telling an adult what they have to do, you lead them into it and ask their permission so they can give a simple, “Yes” or “No”, either answer actually controlling the outcome.

When you consider anyone at all at a higher status than yourself, including a person with Alzheimer’s, you naturally do the respectful thing. Even when treating someone as equal in status, you would never talk down or do something without their permission. As we try to “help” others, we unconsciously take on the role of the person who can help, and thus place those being helped in a lower helpless status to ourselves. It is unconscious, and we never mean anything negative by it, but it greatly affects how someone with Alzheimer’s feels around you.

People living with Alzheimer’s already question how much control they have in their lives. Their failing memory can make them even more self-conscious and worried about the control they have over their lives. When we respect a person with dementia by speaking to him or her in a way that makes him/her realize that he/she is of equal or higher status, it goes a very long way. Instead of hurting their self-esteem, we boost their self-confidence. This allows us to forge a meaningful relationship in which they are given the respect that they deserve.

Evan Bass

Image: Liz West