The New Normal: How to Communicate Successfully When Your Loved One Has Dementia

Friday, February 19, 2021

As humans, we like the world to make sense. When we need an explanation for something or more information, we do our best to listen logically and make sense of the situation. That’s all perfectly normal – but when you find yourself interacting with someone who has dementia or another form of memory loss, it becomes quickly apparent that relying on logic is not typically the best course of action.

“Using logic with your loved one will only serve to frustrate both of you,” says Trish McKay, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Trumbull, a memory care assisted living community in Trumbull, CT. “Yes, it seems rational to us to correct our loved ones when they’re remembering something incorrectly or you’re trying to convince them to do something necessary, like change their clothes, but dementia is not rational. Whatever your loved one is remembering, thinking or believing is their reality right now, and arguing or trying to correct them simply won’t work.”

Many family members try to correct their loved ones or get them to see the “true” reality because they feel, consciously or unconsciously, that this will help them remember and help slow the progression of dementia. If only that were the case, says Trish. “It is frustrating and saddening to see your loved one slipping away in this manner, but you must remember that it’s the disease that’s causing this and not them specifically.”

Instead of trying to argue or correct, it’s important to find new ways to connect, cope and communicate with your loved one. “Ask yourself this: would you rather be right, or would you rather be kind?” says Trish.

Distract, don’t disagree.

If your loved one is saying something that simply isn’t true – such as saying “I’ve already had a bath” even though it’s been days, or misremembering an event in the past – there’s no benefit to arguing with them. Disagreeing with what they are saying will only cause your loved one to get agitated and upset, which will make the situation worse for everyone involved. Instead, do your best to deflect or change the subject. If your loved one believes they’ve already eaten or taken a bath, change the subject and do something else to get their mind off of it before you try again.

Choose compassion.

Your loved one is reacting and remembering things because of their new, current reality. That means when Mom is telling a ridiculous, made-up story, it’s probably best to go along with it. Yes, you know that what she’s saying is completely false. But agreeing with her will make her feel happy and calm, and truthfully, what harm will it do? Obviously, if agreeing with her will cause immediate harm or put her in danger, it’s best to redirect her attention. But if it simply means you are going along with her on a journey of the imagination, smile and go along with her.

Share your memories.

It’s very common for caregivers and family members to ask, “Do you remember?” or “What did you do today?” when communicating with individuals with dementia. This is rarely helpful, (since memory loss is a hallmark of dementia) and can only lead to sadness or embarrassment on the part of your loved one. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t talk about the past or happy memories. It just means you need to change your approach slightly. Take on a more active role by reminiscing, saying things like, “I remember when I was six …” or “I remember when we used to …” Sharing your memories may help spur conversation with your loved one or bring forgotten memories to the surface even for just a while.

Take one step at a time.

Let’s take a situation where you need your loved one to do something, like go to the store with you. You might say something like, “Please put on your shoes and your coat because we’re going to the grocery store.” While this sounds simple and straightforward to you, it can be a long, confusing string of tasks for your loved one. Instead, take things one step at a time. First, put on your shoes. Then, put on your coat. Then, let’s go to the car. Think of the most immediate things that need to happen and direct him or her from there. This will help reduce confusion, anxiety and potential unwanted behaviors.

Treat them as you would wish to be treated.

There’s a phenomenon called “elderspeak” that can occur when an older individual gets older and their abilities dwindle. This is when the caregiver or other person starts “talking down” to the older adult (whether they are doing it intentionally or not). It’s usually identifiable by a sing-songy, simplistic way of speaking – similar to how you would talk to a very young child.

Dementia is a progressive disease, and it’s hard to watch a loved one become more childlike and dependent on others. But it is our job as caregivers, loved ones and family members to treat them with dignity and respect. Even as the disease takes away more and more of their abilities, your loved one is still the person they once were, and they deserve the consideration and respect due to them. Whenever possible, think of how you would want to be treated in this particular situation. Remember that behind the disease is the person you know and love. Sometimes just reminding ourselves of that can be enough to put us in a different frame of mind.

Trish says that it all boils down to one word: kindness.

“When in doubt, choose kindness,” she says. “That’s something that is never out of place. Our loved ones with dementia may not understand what we’re saying or doing, but they understand your emotions and feelings. When you care from a place of kindness, you’re giving them – and yourself – a gift.”

Dedicated Memory Care

Bridges® by EPOCH at Trumbull delivers highly specialized memory care assisted living for  those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Our resident-centered approach focuses on providing dignity, purpose and moments of joy in daily life for those in all stages of the disease. We offer a wellness-focused lifestyle that centers around a resident’s current skills and abilities, not those that have been lost to dementia.

Life-Enriching Programs

Our team members take an active role in getting to know each resident on a personal level to deliver programming that is meaningful to them. We account for the preferences, interests, needs and abilities of our residents to connect with them and encourage their involvement in daily life and boost self-esteem.

Warm, Residential Atmosphere

Featuring a stunning residential design, every inch of our community has been designed to benefit those with memory loss. Attributes such as soft colors, directional cues, aromatherapy and interactive life stations create a soothing and secure environment where residents feel comfortable, safe and at home.

Contact us today to learn more.

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