Karen called her mom, Mary, from the car to let her know she would be there in 5 minutes and would pick her up out front.
Mary said, “You are coming here? Are we going somewhere?”
“You have a doctor’s appointment in 30 minutes,” Karen said.
Confused, Mary replied, “I do? Today?”
“I told you that yesterday! Remember?” Karen said.
Mary has dementia, which is a biological brain disorder. It is not a specific disease but a term that describes a set of symptoms including loss of memory, difficulties with thinking, problem solving, language and the ability to care for oneself. People with dementia often lose their train of thought, get overwhelmed by excessive stimulation, have difficulty finding the right words, repeat stories, and get frustrated trying to say and understand things. This can make communication difficult and frustrating for everyone involved, but it doesn’t have to be.
Tips for communication
These are suggestions for ways to modify your communication so that it is more successful for you and your loved one.
- Eliminate distractions. When talking with a loved one who has dementia make it a one-on-one conversation. Choose a quiet setting and turn off the TV or radio.
- Use positive body language. Even if your loved one doesn’t understand your words, they are likely to pick up on your emotions. Staying calm, leaning forward, and maintaining eye contact will show them that you care. If you stay calm, they are more likely to do so, too.
- Watch their body language. Likewise, your loved one’s body language will tell you a lot about what they are feeling. Watch for signs of confusion, agitation, and frustration.
- Allow time. Give the person time to respond. Let them think about what they are going to say. Don’t rush, interrupt or finish their sentences for them.
- Give simple instructions. Your loved one may no longer be able to remember a long list of requests. “Eat breakfast, take a shower, get dressed and be ready to go at 10:00” may be too lengthy. Instead, give instructions one-step at a time.
- Use closed ended questions. Ask specific questions that require a single word answer. Instead of “what would you like for lunch?” ask “would you like a tuna sandwich for lunch?”
- Use visual aides. If your loved one doesn’t seem to understand what you are saying, show them a picture or an object. For example, when asking if they would like a cup of coffee, you can hold up a coffee cup and the coffee pot. Along those lines, written instructions may be easier to understand and follow that verbal ones.
- Don’t argue. Arguing probably won’t get you anywhere if you disagree or the person has misstated something. In Mary’s and Karen’s case, Karen could have continued to argue that she told her mom about the doctor’s appointment, but it wouldn’t have changed anything and would have probably resulted in both of them getting upset and frustrated. The best thing is to just let it go.
Communicating with a loved one who has dementia takes patience, understanding, compassion, and empathy. They cannot control their behavior nor can they change it. You, however, can change your behavior to accommodate theirs, which, most of the time will result in more peaceful interactions and less stress.
Jodi Hempel is a daughter turned caregiver for her mother. She is the lead author of “Life: The Next Phase. Navigating the Issues of Caring for Your Aging Parents or Loved Ones.” She is also the creator of the “Walking the Path with Your Aging Loved Ones” training program. She holds an MBA in Strategic Leadership. www.jodihempel.com