Dementia has a variety of symptoms but the most common is forgetting and losing words. What are words, what is their purpose and what happens when we lose them.

Words are a human construct which depict something. (House, train, running, talking). Every language uses words to communicate. However, words are not our first language. Before we understood the meaning of words, we thought in images. When the baby wanted milk, his bottle came to mind.

Words must be converted to images by the brain and this is accomplished in a fraction of a microsecond.

Words are also metaphors having multiple meanings which go beyond the literal translation. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. (It’s almost impossible to find.) The brain processes the word’s meaning dependent on the grouping. Most metaphors have cultural connections but some have been handed down through generations and crossed cultures.

Words also depict and elicit feelings. Depending on your tone of voice, the word can imply different meanings. If you include your facial expressions and body language, the significance of what you are saying can be interpreted in many different ways.

The brain’s language center is in the left hemisphere of the brain and when damaged the person loses speech abilities. The right hemisphere is non-verbal; however, it can still interpret written words as images. As a child I was taught sight reading where the word is an image to be remembered. This learning system was ineffectual when encountering a word never seen before. So, phonics, or sounding out the word, continues to be the principal system for learning to read.

Not only can the brain process words as images it can rearrange words that are spelled wrong and still be understood. Concentrate on the following words a minute then begin to read. Amazingly most people can understand the entire paragraph.

I cdnoult blveiee that I cluod aulacity uesdanatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervisy, it deosn’t mtterr inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny tihng is ahtt the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe, Amzanig huh?

And I awlyas thgouht slpeling was ipomorantt.

When a person with dementia begins to lose words, they aren’t always losing what they want to say. Often, they substitute a word that might have some relationship to the word they lost; at dinner asking for snow when they want to say sugar. After all, its white and resembles snow.

They might be unable to carry on a conversation but often understand what is being said in the room. Careful what you say in front of them. In a dementia episode they may uncontrollably say things and still be aware of what they are saying without being able to control it.

The two hemispheres of the brain work in unison however usually the left is more dominant. When the left function of logic, reasoning and following processes are lost the right hemisphere becomes dominant to which the individual begins to interpret most communication from a non-verbal standpoint and the right brain process of communication becomes dominant (Visual shapes and patterns, emotions, body language, verbal ambiguity, and implied meanings). I’ve always been amazed by the people with dementia and how in spite of the losses they retain sense of humor and understanding of satire. (Verbal ambiguity, implied meanings) Yet they can’t understand when asked to use a fork.

Remember words are only a part of communication with those with dementia.


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