Family members who are new to dealing with a loved one's dementia often ask us: "How do you talk with someone with memory loss?"
It's easy: approach talking to someone with dementia the way you would approach talking with a child.
That doesn't mean taking on a patronizing or condescending tone or addressing those with dementia in an undignified manner. It does mean using simpler language and maintaining an encouraging tone, positive expression, eye contact and open gestures. And it means exercising patience.
Here are eight tips that our Episcopal Church Home memory care experts recommend you use, to stay connected with loved ones with Alzheimer's, other dementias or age-related memory loss.
1. Create an environment that fosters focus
You should limit the background noise. If the grandkids are running around and making noise, ask them to go play in another room and to keep it down. Turn off the TV or radio.
If your loved one is living in a personal care or memory care home, shut the door during your visit to reduce noises from the hallway. Then, use simple techniques to get your loved one's attention and hold it.
Call your relative by name. Don't become upset if he or she doesn't remember your name; just identify yourself and move on. Use a light touch on the shoulder, forearm, or hand to focus attention. Make eye contact and maintain it.
2. Keep a positive, upbeat tone
Even if it's disturbing to you to notice your loved one's cognitive decline, you need to keep up appearances, so to speak, when you're talking with him or her. People with dementia might not be able to understand everything you say or ask, but they certainly pick up on your mood and your expression.
If you seem worried, anxious, or upset, they'll become anxious or upset, too.
So, speak in a positive, uplifting tone. Smile. Allow yourself to be optimistic with them. Use gentle words and gestures.
3. Stick to easy-to-understand words and short sentences
You don't need to raise your voice or speak in an exaggeratedly simplified manner. But you should speak slowly, clearly, in an even tone and use simpler words — one and two-syllable words, preferably — to convey meaning.
Using a lower-than-usual pitch in your voice can also help to focus your loved one's attention.
Don't take it as a setback or defeat if your loved one needs you to repeat what you say several times. Just do so and, if they still don't understand you, move on to the next topic. You might try the same question or sentence later.
4. Ask simple questions
Yes or no answers work best for people with dementia. Don't ask open-ended questions; pose questions that would be easy for your loved one to answer.
If you're soliciting input from your relative — for example, asking what he or she would like to eat today — don't overload them with choices. For example, ask "Do you want beef or chicken for dinner?" instead of reading off the whole menu.
5. Don't use a pronoun where a noun will do
Use names and nouns as much as possible.
For example, if you and your husband visit your mother at her memory care home, and you return to the room after stepping out for a moment to talk to the nurse, and find your husband has also left the room, don't ask, "Where did he go?"
Instead ask, "Mom, where did Bob go?"
Or, if your mother is telling you a story about a past event — say, a time that your father went to New York — don't ask, "Did he go to a game while he was there?," ask "Did Dad go to Yankee Stadium while he was in New York?"
6. Be patient
It can be tempting to step in and provide words that your loved one is struggling for. It's OK to do that once in awhile, but don't do it too much. It could discourage your loved one from trying to talk, and make them reliant on you to tell the story for them.
But part of memory care is exercising the brain. It's perfectly OK if they struggle to find a word. Just keep eye contact and maintain an encouraging expression and tone. Train yourself to remain comfortable in the silence.
7. Distract and redirect if your loved one becomes frustrated
Sometimes, your loved one might become upset when he or she can't remember — especially if it's late in the day and he or she is tiring.
In that case, gently redirect the conversation, or distract them. Stand up and stretch and invite them to walk down the hall with you. Ask another, simpler question on a different topic. Lean over and give a hug. Just show that you appreciate being in their presence, regardless of their ability to remember.
8. Smile and reassure your older loved one
Part and parcel with that last tip, always reassure your loved one. Smile. Hold his or her hand. Speak gently and soothingly. Let your relative know that he or she is in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
Use these tips to stay connected with your older relative with memory loss.
Dementia makes it difficult for a person to communicate, but that doesn't mean that communication is impossible. You just need to remember to scale your questions and responses to your loved one's abilities at any given moment, and bear in mind that abilities can change throughout the day.
Your mom might be relatively lucid and alert in the mornings when she's well rested, but have more trouble in the afternoon. That's common. Just relax, and allow yourself to go with the flow.
Could your older relative or partner benefit from memory care at Episcopal Church Home?
Click here to request more information or to ask about the innovative dementia treatments available to your loved one right here in Louisville.