Dementia is deeply troubling for everyone involved. It is an understatement to say that it is a cruel disease, stealing loved ones away and removing our ability to connect with them – at least as we used to. It is possible to converse with dementia patients and it is possible to enjoy time with them. However, it requires that you relinquish old assumptions and habits and adopt a new approach to conversation. If your loved one suffers from dementia, here are three tips on communicating with them.
1. It’s like riding a wave. The most important thing is to forget how you usually hold conversations with people. Dementia eliminates all sense of time and space, continuity, and streams of conversation. To enjoy time with a loved one who suffers from dementia is to meet them where they are mentally at any given moment in time. The disease changes mental focus in seconds or minutes, and you need to roll with it to enjoy time with them and not become frustrated.
Your loved one cannot come to where you are in a conversation; you must go to him or her. For example, It is not possible for your loved one to agree to discuss flowers. Rather, you must observe what he or she is doing and strike up a mini-conversation about that. Is your mother eating? Talk about the food. Is your father watching TV? Talk about the people on the television show. As their interest and focus changes, change along with them.
2. Be calm, positive and reassuring. Dementia increases anxiety and uncertainty. The inability to make connections between everyday objects and events can be disconcerting and frightening for the person with the disease. As you sit with your loved one, be observant of their facial features and body language. If they become anxious or fearful, talk about things you know he or she always loved, their hobbies and interests, favorite places or people. It doesn’t matter if the memories connect, it matters that you are talking about things that are reassuring and friendly.
3. Speak in simple sentences and short simple conversations. Forget trying to engage in complex discussions or long stories. Dementia steals the brain’s ability to make connections and follow long trains of thought. Do not expect to have a long conversation that includes many types of “He said, she said.” Your loved one won’t be able to follow the thread of the story and will drift off. Instead, talk about things in short paragraphs. Looking at a picture book, magazine, or interesting coffee table book with your loved one can be very helpful. You can look at the pictures together, and the conversation will change with every page. In fact, that is just about the perfect length of time for any conversation, with or without a book.
It is never easy to lose a loved one to the slow decline of dementia. Learning how to communicate with a person with dementia requires time and planning for their safety well-being. However, it is critical to spend time with your loved one and to make it as enjoyable and memorable as possible. Add some fun to the mix, you’d be surprised in how music can help with dementia care. Learning how to converse easily will reduce your anxiety and increase the joy of being together for both of you.