Bridging The Language Barrier

By Jude Roberts


As a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, the difficulties of getting their attention and having them understand you and the professional members of the caregiving team can be a very real challenge. Along with these issues, what if there was also a communication gap caused not only by the disease, but by a language barrier? What if your loved one speaks another language other than English? Because of this, an experience with a doctor or professional caregiver can be very scary and frustrating for a loved one. The Alzheimer’s Association recognized the ever-emerging need for a translation service available to family caregivers, their loved ones, and the professional members of the caregiving team.

Cathy Sewell, Director of Client Services at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Headquarters in Chicago, says the “language line” was a natural progression created from a market study done in 1999. Cathy says the translation service came about “because of the Alzheimer’s Association’s diversity initiative to be culturally competent, reaching out to the under-serviced throughout the country.” Since the inception of the national “24-7” Contact Center 2-1/2 years ago, and with 150 different languages spoken throughout the country aside from English, Cathy went about the daunting task of creating an even more extensive translation service for family and professional caregivers. One of the requirements of the Alzheimer’s Association was to find a language service with the ability to translate the word “dementia” with compassion, and that this word needn’t mean “crazy” in any language.

The “language line” works quite simply by organizing a three-way, conference call between the family or professional caregiver, a care consultant from the Alzheimer’s Association, and an interpreter from NetworkOmni. A caregiver calls the Alzheimer’s Association’s national Contact Center, speaks with a care consultant and requests the translation service, stating the specific language that is needed. The care consultant then calls NetworkOmni, with the caregiver still on the line, making sure that everyone is connected to one another.

One story that illustrates the “language line” concerns Alex Karski and his 86 year-old, Polish-speaking mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease just last year. For the past 20 years, she’s enjoyed the independence of living alone in Chicago, and still wants to maintain her routine. In order for her to remain independent for as long as possible, her son hired a Polish-speaking caregiver to aide his mother with the daily tasks of bathing, dressing, food preparation, and keeping up with medications. However, since the caregiver had no formal training in Alzheimer’s or dementia care, she found the man’s mother more and more difficult to work with, and she was unsure of how to handle the increasing demands that the disease was placing upon her. Alex noticed that the caregiver was becoming frustrated and short-tempered when dealing with his mother. He called the Alzheimer’s Association. Between the care consultant and the interpreter, they were able to educate the caregiver on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, giving her several suggestions and communication tips. It was exactly what the caregiver needed, and since knowing that she has a place to turn to at all times, it has made all the difference in her ability to better care for and understand someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Many caregivers do not realize that the “24-7” Contact Center exists. During normal, weekday working hours, when someone calls the Alzheimer’s Association, the system automatically transfers them directly to the closest, local chapter. After hours and on weekends, when the national 800 number is contacted, headquarters in Chicago answers the call on behalf of the local chapters. There’s always someone accessible for caregivers to speak with, and the “language line” is available to them at all times. With over 500 calls coming in on a daily basis, the “24-7” Contact Center is able to, as Cathy Sewell puts it, “empower caregivers to do what they need to do, like attend support groups, receive respite care, obtain important information regarding the disease, or receive a listening ear when they so desperately need one.”

Another service that has been a huge success and has had a great impact for the Alzheimer’s Association is the “Safe Return” program. Started 10 years ago, the “Safe Return” program is designed to help caregivers locate missing loved ones who have wandered off. “At least 60% of all people with Alzheimer’s will wander at some point,” says Cathy, “with wandering occurring even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.” When someone has been identified as having Alzheimer’s, their caregivers can have them enrolled in the national “Safe Return” program, which builds a composite for law enforcement agencies and authorities, enabling them to gain valuable information when searching for a missing loved one. The program provides loved ones with an ID bracelet which states that the person is part of the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Safe Return” program. The bracelet provides a telephone number that can be contacted immediately.  The program also distributes important information to local law enforcement agencies in the area where a loved one may be reported as missing, providing them with a photograph along with important medical and contact information.

The Alzheimer’s Association has so much to offer both family and professional caregivers, and yet Cathy Sewell is concerned that many do not realize what’s available to them every day, around the clock, and at no cost. “The Alzheimer’s Association has a dual mission ... care and research ... we care about both deeply.” says Cathy.

For more information on how to contact a local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association in your area, or to find out more about the “language line” translation service, the “24-7” Contact Center, the “Safe Return” program, or other services available to caregivers, call 800-272-3900.

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