When relatives or friends are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia disorders, it can be difficult to know what to say. How do you treat them? Do they want to talk about their diagnoses? Will their personalities suddenly change? Will they even remember you the next time you approach?
Naturally, these can all seem like tough questions. And there are no easy answers.
“We know when we are friends with someone with Alzheimer’s and interacting in a variety of settings, we may do our best to do the right thing and say the right thing,” Ruth Drew, Director of Family and Information Services for the Alzheimer’s Association, told the Washington Post. “But it may not always be the right thing.”
Today, let’s examine some of the ways you can socialize with people with dementia without unintentionally creating awkward situations for them — and without feeling awkward yourself.
1. Don’t shy away
Many dementia patients feel isolated and lonely. It’s important for them, as they cope with their illness, to feel loved and supported, even if they aren’t quite sure who that love and support is coming from.
So how should you treat your loved one? Simple. No differently at all, save for adjusting your words for the illness.
For those with dementia, open-ended questions are often too complex to answer and can be intensely frustrating.
In the early stages of the disease, you might find you must repeat a lot of things. In the later stages of the disease, you might not even be able to verbally communicate with each other. But being patiently caring and available to your loved one is enough.
2. Don’t quiz or interrogate
If your loved one with dementia doesn’t remember something — for example, who you are or where you met — you should never respond with, “Don’t you remember?” Many people do this reflexively, but it puts the person in the position of feeling inadequate or deficient because he or she can’t remember.
Remember that when your loved one forgets something, it’s not due to any lack of effort to remember. The disease is making it impossible for them to remember things. It may seem incredible to you, for instance, that your mother can no longer remember her grandchild’s name. But saying something like, “Can you try to remember?” or “How could you forget that?” is akin to asking a paralyzed person, “Why can’t you just try to walk?”
3. Ask yes or no questions
We learn in life to ask open-ended questions when we want to foster conversation with others. But for those with dementia, open-ended questions are often too complex to answer and can be intensely frustrating.
Instead of asking your loved one, “What did you do today?,” try asking “Have you enjoyed your day?” He or she may know that the day has gone well, but asking for or implying the necessity of details is asking a bit too much.
4. Be patient and don’t raise your voice
Alzheimer’s doesn’t rob a person of hearing. If a loved one doesn’t immediately respond to something you say or ask, you don’t need to raise your voice on the repeat.
You should, however, speak slowly and succinctly. Make it easier for your loved one to digest what you’re saying. Phrase thoughts in such a way as to be easy to respond to. If your loved one seems perplexed, repeat your statement or query in a gentle, normal tone.
5. Use your loved one’s name
Addressing a person by name reinforces his or her identity. It also helps to hold attention. If you use your loved one’s name more often in conversation, it may make it easier for him or her to concentrate and respond to you.
6. Maintain eye contact and employ touch during conversation
By lightly touching your loved one on the hand or shoulder when you speak, you can help him or her to focus on your words. That said, don’t surprise your loved one with touch — make sure you don’t startle.
When you speak, look him or her in the eye. This, too, will help your loved one to focus on the conversation at hand.
7. Don’t talk around your loved one as if he or she isn’t in the room.
Your friend or relative may not be able to directly respond, or keep up, with a conversation you’re having with another person. But he or she will feel sidelined — especially in the early stages of the disease. And that can be demeaning. Instead, try to include your loved one in the conversation, to the extent that he or she can participate.
Alzheimer’s and dementia care aren’t easy tasks. When you need help, we’re here.
Eventually, your loved one may need residential memory care. When that time comes, we’re honored to be of service to your family. In the meantime, engaging with your older relative and providing emotional support will help to ease the tremendous burden of the disease.