My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. She just turned 85. The disease is still in its very early stages and she’s doing well, so our hope is the dementia will outlive her.
Family has noticed the subtle changes and she’s very aware her memory is getting worse, but to focus on the negative is to lose quality time with our mom, so instead we take every day as it comes and are learning how to communicate best, not only about Alzheimer’s, but with her as time goes on.
If you have a loved one with dementia, one of the biggest challenges will be communication. What is the best way to continue to communicate with your loved one as the disease progresses.
First and foremost, remember that it is not only possible, but imperative to continue to have meaningful conversations and connections with your loved one. Our loved ones need that connection more, not less, when they are faced with struggles.
Here are 9 tips to help you communicate more effectively with a loved one with dementia.
1. Do not depersonalize your loved one.
Resist the urge to believe that your loved ones identity is being erased as the disease progresses. Memory and identity are very intricate, and scientists are still trying to understand their complexities. But even a person with severe dementia will still retain core features of their personality, beliefs, likes and dislikes. Continue to focus on those consistencies and continually help your loved one connect and reconnect with them.
2. Do not attempt to correct inaccuracies in conversation.
Understand that inaccurate statements from someone with dementia are a normal part of their life. Because someone with dementia may very likely retain their long term memory and be able to talk about past events with accuracy, you may assume that conversations about current events should have that same accuracy. This is rarely the case. The more common forms of dementia effect short term memory, not necessarily long term memory, at least in its earlier stages. So live in your loved one’s world. Be present with them in conversation, even if means repeating the same answer to a question multiple times. Yes, this is frustrating, but to attempt to correct your loved one with dementia will frustrate and worry them, potentially hastening their mental decline.
3. Keep the brain engaged.
Some research has shown that new connections in the brain can continue to be made, even after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Keep your loved with dementia as stimulated as possible, without overdoing it so they become anxious or withdrawn. For a senior with dementia, living alone in San Diego may not be an optimal scenario. In the past 10-15 years, many new memory care communities have been built that provide not only a safe environment for our seniors, but a stimulating one with activities focused on slowing the rate of dementias.
2. Minimize distractions in the environment.
A person with dementia may become easily agitated with too much outside stimuli. It’s hard to know exactly how your loved one will react to distractions until they’re put into a situation where there are many. But it’s common, especially in later stages of the disease, for a person with any type of dementia to prefer a tranquil, quiet, familiar setting.
3. Do not infantilize the person with dementia.
Remember that you are speaking to an adult who has had extensive life experiences. That is true regardless of that person’s neurological state.
4. Speak and behave in a calm fashion.
Those with dementia are prone to emotional swings with bursts of confusion, anger and possibly aggression. When you are calm and friendly, it will be easier for your loved one to feel calm as well. If you seem distraught, your loved one may mirror your emotion, becoming upset as well.
6. Keep the conversation focused on one topic.
As we get older it’s difficult to maintain focus on multiple threads of thought, even if we haven’t been diagnosed with dementia. Imagine how difficult that focus is becoming for your loved one with dementia. Do not jump between topics in a conversation. Speak slowly and clearly and keep everything focused on one topic at a time.
7. Do not respond to aggression with more aggression.
You are in a very difficult situation that may be made worse by periods of aggression from a loved one with dementia. This may cause you to feel angry, frustrated, hurt, or panicked, but try and rein in your emotions. If you react aggressively, you will simply agitate your elder more. It’s important to remember that the behavior is not who your loved one is, but a reaction to how they perceive their situation at that moment in time.
Step away, physically and/or mentally, and evaluate objectively what might be causing the aggression. Put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Change the environment and tone of the current situation by focusing on something completely different and see if things calm down. If you fear for your safety, or your loved one’s safety, it is wise to seek professional help or law enforcement’s help. Keep a log of what is causing the outbursts, so you can if possible, avoid those situation in the future.
When you adjust your communication strategies, you will not only continue to have meaningful interactions with your loved one who has dementia, you will also maintain the emotional bond you’ve always had.