Dementia expert shares his story, trains staff in Riverview

David Currier, formerly a drummer for the rock band Boston, is now an expert on dementia, who helps train caregivers around the country.

Paula Neuman

We inadvertently make life much tougher for the person with dementia by trying to hang on to what they were before. ~ David Currier

Dementia specialist David Currier gained his expertise in perhaps the hardest way possible. In 1988, both of his parents were diagnosed with dementia — his father Ralph with Alzheimer’s disease and his mother Fern with a combination of vascular and Lewy body dementia. Currier was their caregiver for 5 1/2 years.

“They were in their late 50s at this point,” said Currier, who came to Riverview recently to speak and to give trainings to staff members at Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center. “My father came home one day and said he had retired early. It turned out he was fired because he couldn’t remember how to do his job anymore.”

Eventually, the ravages of Alzheimer’s made his formerly gentle, loving father very aggressive. Both parents had to put into nursing homes.

“My mother died in 1994,” Currier said. “I went in to tell my father, and he punched me in the face. I remember going home, crying.”

But some caretaking moments were enlightening and fulfilling, and Currier learned ways to cheer his ailing parents and make them smile for a while. A former drummer with the rock band Boston, Currier was working then as a songwriter on movie soundtracks. He found that music and drumming tapped positive emotions for his parents.

“It’s a crazy road for somebody to go from being a drummer and songwriter to being a trainer of CNAs (certified nurse aides) and nurses and activity people,” Currier said. “It’s been a pretty marvelous journey.”

Finding his pathway to his current position, gained in 2000, as dementia specialist and program development for the northeast division of Life Care Centers of America (owner of the Riverview nursing homes and many others across the country) also came about in perhaps the hardest way possible.

“I found out my ex-wife had been unfaithful to me the whole time I was taking care of my parents,” Currier said. “I told my doctor I was going to commit suicide. I was committed to a hospital. One night I looked out the window, there at a streetlight, and I realized that God was lighting the darkness for me. I realized that my parents did not die in vain if I could help other people.”

Released from the hospital, Currier began volunteering for the Alzheimer’s Association. Dr. Paul Raia, a gerontologist and psychologist listened to Currier sharing some of his hard-earned insights with family members of Alzheimer’s patients, got to know him, and told him to go to work as a program director.

“Dr. Raia is my mentor,” Currier said. “He’s my angel.”

Raia developed a systematic approach to dementia care called habilitation therapy, a technique that focuses on the patient’s emotions and their remaining capacities. Habilitation therapy is now widely accepted, and Currier travels his region teaching it to nursing home staff. He spoke on the habilitation approach on Sept. 5 at Rivergate Health Care Center, and about how Alzheimer’s patients perceive the world at Rivergate Terrace on Sept. 4.

He also trained caregivers there about ways to use the therapy.

“I was very excited about the training we did at Rivergate,” he said. “The management said afterward that the staff was very excited about it. The basis of the training is that you can’t rehabilitate someone with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. You can’t reverse the damage. But you can get them involved in programs that use their life experiences.”

He trains nursing home staff to get and keep on file personal, individualized information on each patient, to create individualized playlists of their favorite music, and to get them involved in programs suited to their abilities at the same time every day.

Alzheimer’s affects the brain’s memory capacity, but creating meaningful routines helps reduce patients’ anxiety, keeps them active and more engaged, and gives them a better quality of life, he said.

Currier also helps facilitate drumming circles at some facilities. Drumming in a group helps patients find joy, he said. They may forget five minutes later that they were drumming, but the emotion stays with them, he said. A few years ago, he brought in David Mattacks, Paul McCartney’s former drummer, to join in a nursing home drumming circle.

“He was almost brought to tears seeing people who were in a fetal position respond so much to the music,” Currier said. “He’s going to join us again in a couple of weeks.”

If you’re caring for a dementia patient, try not to correct the person.

For instance, his mother would point out the window in July and say, ‘Look at the beautiful snow,’ he said. Instead of telling her there was no snow, he learned to say something like ‘Snow really is lovely, isn’t it?’

“We inadvertently make life much tougher for the person with dementia by trying to hang on to what they were before,” he said. “Don’t point out what they’re doing wrong. As time goes by, they don’t know what season it is, what they’re supposed to be doing. Their world gets smaller and smaller. We shouldn’t say that they’re forgetful. When the brain’s hippocampus isn’t recording stuff, is it really being forgetful?”

And their brain issues eventually change their vision. When that happens, patients can’t see the bottom of the bathtub or where their next step is taking them. Shiny floors may look like water or ice to them. Alzheimer’s patients need 50 percent more lighting than someone without the disease, he said.

Also, if you’re caring for a dementia patient, go to a support group, Currier advised.

“You can’t be a good caregiver if you’re not taking care of yourself,” he said. “Support groups are wonderful. You find out you’re not alone.”

He finds that the best part of his job is training CNAs and activity staff members at nursing homes, Currier said.

“My heroes are the CNAs,” he said. “They’re unsung heroes. They do so much! To be able to give them techniques on how to bathe people without a battle, to make their jobs a little less stressful — that to me honors my parents. I miss my parents every day.”

And the CNAs and other caregivers have the constant strain of watching their patients — often people they have come to love — slowly fade away.

“It’s a terminal disease,” Currier said. “No matter how hard you try, they are going to die.  These wonderful staff members mourn. And the next day, there’s someone new and you start all over. I’m honored to be able to train them.”

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