Meaningful Connections Part One: Beginning Your Best Connection
When your loved one has dementia, it can be difficult to know how to talk to them. It can become frustrating, difficult or even sad to see the person we know and love struggle to find words or become more and more withdrawn. While dementia means you may not be able to communicate with your loved one as you did before, take heart – it is still possible to have meaningful moments and fulfilling connections.
While communicating with a person who has dementia can take practice, it’s a skill we can all learn with patience and understanding. By learning how to communicate meaningfully with your loved one, you’ll be able to strengthen and maintain the relationship you have while improving the quality of both your lives.
Over the next several months, we will provide tips and advice for communicating with your loved one in our Meaningful Connections series of blogs. This month, we focus on setting the stage for meaningful interactions and how to initiate a conversation with a loved one who has dementia.
Set realistic expectations.
Understand that not every interaction with your loved one will go well. People with dementia have good days and bad days, just like all of us, and while sometimes they can be as sharp as a tack, there are other days when they may be too agitated or confused to carry on a conversation. Remember that spending time together is what’s most important – not what you do or what you talk about.
Minimize distractions and be present.
It’s hard for individuals with dementia to focus on more than one thing at a time. Before you begin any conversation, turn off the television or radio, shut the door if it’s in a noisy area or move to someplace quiet. Focus your whole attention on your loved one and make sure you have his or her attention as well. Actively listen by being patient, asking questions and honoring the time together.
Assess the mood and pay attention to non-verbal communication – both yours and theirs.
Non-verbal communication speaks louder than our words, and your loved one will be able to pick up on if you are upset or frustrated. Take a deep breath, smile and keep your voice pleasant. At the same time, watch your loved one to see how they are feeling. If they are becoming agitated, angry or confused, adapt your conversation accordingly.
Address the person as an adult.
Even though your loved one’s abilities may be declining, they can tell if you’re talking down to them. Avoid “elderspeak” (talking to the senior as if he or she is a child) and calling your loved one pet names like “honey” or “sweetie.” Remember that they are the same person you’ve always known and loved and they deserve respect and honor like always.
It’s always helpful to let your loved one know who you are, even if you’re a regular visitor. Individuals with dementia will know that you are important to them but may become confused as to your name and your relationship to each other. “Hi, Mom, it’s your middle daughter, Dorothy,” is an excellent, non-threatening and casual way to identify yourself.
Begin a conversation by asking questions.
Asking questions, no matter how simple, shows your loved one that their opinion and thoughts matter to you. You can start off a conversation by asking an option – “Do you like my new haircut?” – or you can give your loved one a choice of something to do (such as, “Would you like to eat lunch now or after we’ve taken a walk). You can also take a stroll down memory lane by asking “Do you remember…” and launching into a story. Prompting conversation and putting control in their hands will make your loved one feel important and valued.