In a perfect world, we’d get along perfectly with our aging parents all the time. In the world we live in, however, these relationships can be challenging—especially when Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other forms of cognitive decline enter the mix. The good news? There are some things you can do to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, meaningful, and fulfilling interactions with your parents. Here's a closer look at 10 effective strategies for connecting with aging loved ones.
1. Educate yourself
No one sets out to be difficult. In fact, challenging behaviors usually stem from specific causes and triggers. By learning as much as you can about your aging loved one’s state of mind and/or disease progression, you can position yourself to be more empathetic and understanding in all situations.
2. Manage your expectations
Perfection is an impossible goal when it comes to caregiving. Instead of aiming high and setting yourself up for disappointment, set realistic goals for your interactions with your aging loved one. While you’re at it, expect the unexpected. The more adaptable you are, the less stressful your time together will be.
If your loved one has Alzheimer’s or another kind of dementia, it’s helpful to manage others’ expectations, as well. Not everyone will know what to expect due to the progressive nature of cognitive disease. The more you prepare them, the smoother things will go.
3. Stick to a schedule
In general, seniors thrive with a sense of routine. This is especially true in the case of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Setting a schedule and sticking with it as much as possible can minimize confusion and frustration on the part of your aging loved one. That said, planning around dementia tendencies, such as sundowning, facilitates better outcomes.
4. Meet your loved one where he/she is
Trying to change or reform someone with cognitive loss is a losing battle. Instead, commit to loving your parent as he/she is. You may already be aware that arguing with an aging loved one will get you nowhere while irritating you both. Whenever possible, let things go and move on. If he/she does get agitated, a change of scenery or subject can work wonders.
5. Encourage independence
Some of the most difficult senior behaviors emerge from fear of losing control. Help aging loved ones retain a sense of independence by encouraging them to do for themselves as much as possible. While it may seem quicker and easier to do everything on your own, this can do more harm than good in the long run.
6. Find the fun
It’s possible to have fun at any age! Find activities your aging loved one enjoys and arrange opportunities to share them together. Depending on an individual’s capabilities, this can be as simple as doing a coloring activity or as intensive as taking a trip to a favorite destination.
7. Interact with the person, not the disease
People aren’t their diseases. A dementia diagnosis can overtake everything, but it’s important to focus on who your parent was before the onset of the disease. This is consistent with the patient-centered approach to care embraced by today’s innovative healthcare professionals. At the same time, accept that certain behaviors are not willful acts, but symptoms of the progression of the disease.
8. Take care of yourself
Caring for an aging loved one can be overwhelming. Taking care of yourself can prevent burnout while supporting more positive interactions between you and your parent. This means making time for self-care while also acknowledging your own limitations. Learning to ask for help when you need it is also critical.
9. Embrace various modes of communication
When words fail, there are many other ways to communicate with seniors. Strategies include music, reading, and art. Even a simple touch can demonstrate your love and affection. It’s also helpful to minimize distractions whenever possible to help your aging loved one focus.
10. Lead with respect
Even in the most heated moments, commit to treating your parent(s) with dignity. Aging is not always easy, and kindness and respect go a very long way. And remember: When someone is living with a brain disorder, he/she may not be accountable for their own behaviors. You, however, retain accountability for yours.
One last thing to keep in mind, according to neuropsychologist Glenn E. Smith, PhD, LP of the Mayo Clinic Dementia-Behavioral Assessment and Response Team (D-BART), "We are so often oriented toward what we don't want people to do that we end up trying to get them to do nothing. What we should be doing is finding positive activities that will compete with the behaviors we don't want to see. The key is finding when a person is most content and doing more of that—shifting the focus to what the person is doing when things are going well.”
Dr. Smith's advice is keenly aligned with the person-centered care philosophy interwoven throughout everything we do at Episcopal Church Home. To learn more about premier senior living at ECH, schedule a visit today.