How Japanese patients helped a Birmingham doctor learn to ‘speak Alzheimer’s’

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Dr. Renee Harmon’s new book features advice about “surfing the waves of Alzheimer’s”

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Simple words. Short sentences. Frequent pauses. No sarcasm.

These were the strategies a Birmingham doctor learned from her experience treating Japanese patients years before she would have to employ them with her husband Harvey, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.

Dr. Renée Harmon practiced medicine in Birmingham for 29 years, but it wasn’t until November 2001 that she would learn lessons that, years later, would turn out to be both practical and personal.

Dr. Renee Harmon discusses the lessons she learned from her Japanese patients.

It was then, in 2001, when Honda first opened its manufacturing plant in Lincoln, Alabama, bringing with it many employees from Japan. While Honda’s Japanese employees had access to a physician on the company’s Lincoln campus, their families had to access care in their home communities. For some of these family members, Harmon would provide that care.

“The office visits for me were awkward at first, as I tried to understand some differences in the medical culture,” Harmon said. “There were a few differences, a few quirks in medical culture, but we learned to adjust.”

What was more difficult than the small differences in culture, though, was the language barrier. Honda provided translators for their employees’ families to help navigate medical care, but even with that help, Harmon had to learn to adjust her language to make communication easier.

“Appointments just felt stiff and awkward until I developed a relationship with these two female interpreters,” she said. “We learned how to talk to each other and interact with each other so that the patients could understand what was going on. So I already knew how to translate medical speak to common speak, but this was on a whole different level. I needed to speak in a very clear, precise way that was easy to translate. I learned how to speak in simple sentences, with simple words, slowly, and with pauses.”

Sarcasm was something else Harmon had to avoid.

“I also learned not to use sarcasm,” she said. “Evidently, sarcasm is not a part of the Japanese language or culture. And I didn’t realize how much sarcasm I used until I had to eliminate it. Not the mean-spirited, harsh type of sarcasm, but the light-hearted joking kind.”

These communication skills she learned from her Japanese patients — clear, precise communication, delivered slowly, with pauses and no sarcasm — would turn out to be more valuable than Harmon knew.

In 2010, years after she had begun treating the Honda families, Harvey, Harmon’s husband, also a doctor with whom she shared her practice, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks,” according to the National Institute on Aging.

In her recently released book, “Surfing the Waves of Alzheimer’s: Principles of Caregiving That Kept Me Upright,” Harmon addresses her experiences learning from her Japanese patients, outlining how difficult it can be for those with Alzheimer’s to understand communication and how skills like the ones she developed with her Japanese patients can help to bridge the divide.

“These patients from Japan were also trying to navigate the world without a working knowledge of English, she said. “Not only did I learn how to speak in a way that helped me communicate with Harvey later on, I also got an inkling of what it must have been like for him to live in a world that was incomprehensible to him.”

Harvey Harmon died in 2018, but through Renée’s work helping families “surf the waves of Alzheimer’s,” his legacy lives on.

Her memoir is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon and local independent booksellers.

She will also be giving a presentation on “How to Build Your Caregiving Team,” an event to be held by the Canterbury-Beeson Forum on Aging on August 14. For more information and to register for the event, click here.

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