It’s one of the most common stressors for caregivers of people living with dementia or Alzheimer's disease: communicating information or asking questions of their loved one. Too often, conversations go in circles or leave both parties feeling frustrated.
After all, not only does the person with dementia face cognitive challenges, but caregivers themselves have their moments of fatigue or irritability — commonly known as “compassion fatigue.” But there are strategies that can become routine; it just takes some practice and patience.
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
Before you begin a conversation with your loved one, imagine how conversations may feel from their point of view. Chances are, the same things that would make you feel stressed in their situation are the same things that frustrate them.
You’ve probably had times in your life when you didn’t have the answers that another person expected you to have or when you felt too emotional to take part in any discussions. Those same sensations are familiar for older adults with dementia. Helping to ease those bumpy moments should be among your priorities.
Raising a delicate topic while at a busy mall is probably not the best idea! With that in mind, try to create as soothing an environment for your talks as possible. If you’re at home, turn the television and other noisy gadgets off. Soften any visual distractions by closing the blinds or shutting doors.
Is the conversation an important one? Waiting for a “good day” — when the person is at his or her most lucid — is often a good strategy. It also helps to deal with any discomfort they are experiencing first, whether it’s feeling too cold or needing to eat.
Finally, as you’re preparing to have your conversation, try to narrow it down to one basic idea. That will allow the person with dementia to focus on that one topic without grasping several concepts at once.
Remember that these techniques are helpful for “big” or “little” conversations — whether you’re discussing what soup to have for lunch or which memory care community is right for them.
Starting the Conversation
Even if you don’t expect that your chat will be a long one, it’s always a good idea to physically position yourself in the friendliest way possible. Sit down if your loved one is sitting, or otherwise get on their current level. Try to be near enough to make seeing and hearing you easy, but not so close that they feel intimidated.
It can take some time to talk to someone with dementia with the right cadence, but it’s worth practicing to hit your rhythm. Your loved one is likely to resent a sing-song, condescending tone that makes him or her feel like a child. At the same time, talking too quickly or loudly can be upsetting. Try to focus on being friendly and clear, and go a bit slower than you usually talk.
Sometimes caregivers can inadvertently distress the person they're caring for simply by making what most people consider small talk. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid when talking to people with memory and cognitive loss:
- Open-ended questions. There are times when “yes” or “no” is all your loved one can handle. Asking them what they like about the book they’re looking at, or what they did since you last saw them can seem upsettingly complex if they have processing issues.
- Memory “interrogations.” People with memory issues are even more frustrated than you are with their lack of recall. Whether you’re asking if they know who a visitor is, or what year they retired, the air of expectancy attending those questions can be upsetting for those who can’t come up with the information.
- Reliving grief. Just about every caregiver, whether a family member or a professional memory care worker, has inadvertently “broken the news” to a person with dementia. That’s because even if the person has been re-informed about a loved one's death several times over, the grief is fresh for them. It’s as if they’re hearing it for the first time. Don’t make matters worse by impatiently insisting that they already knew that. Just be there for them in a loving way as they absorb the information. Or, even better, leverage techniques like “Yes, And!” to improve self-esteem and make the interaction more positive.
You Don’t Have to Go It Alone
Even when your loved one is living in a memory care community, you may still feel that the weight of personal connections is on your shoulders. But you don’t have to go it alone.
Professional memory care services such as those offered by Marjorie P. Lee can help you with communication issues, as well as day-to-day care for your loved one with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Most importantly, your aging parent or spouse will have access to professionals that not only specialize in memory support but who know how to help you bridge that communication gap.