When it comes to interacting with a person in your life who has dementia or Alzheimer's disease, some of the behaviors that come from those disorders can be hard to cope with. Whether full-time or while hosting a relative during a visit, many care partners find it distressing to interact with their loved one when these behaviors become dominant.
Fortunately, you can do a few simple things to make your loved one comfortable and have more positive interactions.
Challenging Behavior Issues
Each person suffering from a dementia disorder or Alzheimer's disease is different, but often they will exhibit at least one common change of behavior.
- Low tolerance for discomfort: With cognitive loss, previously trivial matters like a drafty window or a scratchy throw pillow can become bigger issues. Older people not only feel physical discomfort more keenly, but dementia can make it harder to cope with those unpleasant sensations. As a result, conversations can get derailed, or your loved one may accuse you of not caring about their comfort.
- Frustration over memory issues and confusion: No matter how helpful you try to be, there are times when your loved one will be overwhelmed by people and events they can no longer recall. Or they may not be able to understand where they are, or the purpose of the activity you’re doing, which can result in agitation.
- Aggression: Sometimes, the struggles people with cognitive loss experience spurs them to be verbally or even physically aggressive. Your loved one may accuse you of hiding their “real” spouse or child or may physically lash out.
Simple Methods That Work
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for every person with cognitive loss, but experts with experience in the field have found that combining common-sense approaches, and applying new techniques can have profound effects.
Change Conversational Strategies
Have you ever found your mind wandering, making it hard to pick up the conversational thread again when you’re not sure who the “she” or “it” the story is about? That’s similar to how a person with dementia may feel as you give news from home or ask questions. Try to keep repeating the name of the person or place as you have a discussion, and even add additional information to provide more context clues.
For example, say “Your sister, Sharon sent these photos” when you introduce a subject, and repeat “Sharon” and “your sister” often as you look through the photos. Or instead of talking about “Noli’s” when reminiscing about a favorite family hangout, say “That Italian place, Noli’s, around the corner from our house in Madison,” and other variations on the name.
These tactics are also helpful when you and your spouse or parent are with a group of visitors. Gently say, “Your granddaughter asked a good question, Mom. Were you the one who walked your sister Sharon to school when she was in kindergarten?”
Try a Little Improvisation
It may seem “out there,” but studies have shown that improv classes and techniques can help you better communicate with individuals with dementia.
If you’ve ever taken an improv class, you know that the main tenet is to always respond to your scene partner, even if they say something that doesn’t make sense in the traditional context. Learning what’s known as the “Yes, and?” attitude of improv can help caregivers gain the skill of rolling with whatever the person with dementia is expressing, rather than insisting on their own agenda.
Often, people with dementia are operating within their reality, rather than responding to their current situation. So if you insist that they no longer work at the job they’re getting ready for, or that the company they’re expecting isn’t coming, it can be very upsetting. But with improv training, caregivers can respond as if they’re in that reality too, and can “explain” that it’s a holiday at the office or that the company called and had to reschedule for another day.
Explore Person-Centered Care
Because it can be hard to determine what approaches will have the biggest impact on each person, a memory care community that incorporates many different approaches is often the key to coping with challenging dementia-related behaviors.
New research shows that a holistic approach, in which each person’s needs (mind, body and spirit) are considered, is most likely to help people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A range of therapies, from physical exercise and social activities, are part of the experience at Marjorie P. Lee. In addition, we offer one-on-one sessions designed to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, along with customized music playlists and software tools that deliver puzzles, games, and even treasured movies and television shows.
Don’t Go It Alone
Perhaps the most important coping strategy of all recognizes that you’re not in this alone. Whether you’re currently considering a memory care community or your loved one is already living in one, it can be hard to recognize that you don’t have to bear the weight of enriching your loved one’s life by yourself.
At Marjorie P. Lee, our team is committed to providing each resident with personalized memory care support. At the same time, we’re also here to help you interact with your spouse or parent in productive ways so that the time you spend together is as meaningful as possible.
Editor's Note: This blog was originally published on December 19, 2015 and has been updated and republished with new information.