Supporting a person with dementia can be an emotionally complex experience. There will be immensely positive moments of clarity, but there will also be harder times. During those times it may feel like there is a big void in between you and the person you know, where nothing appears to work as you hope. Here are some tips that may help to make your time together more positive and rewarding for you both.
At times it might feel that you and the person with dementia are on different planets. Dementia distorts someone’s perception of the world for many reasons – impaired vision and hearing, hallucinations and memory distortion to name a few. Contradicting or attempting to reason with the person about how they see the world around them may unintentionally lead to distress and frustration.
Instead, by simply listening and acknowledging what they are saying you show them empathy and that “what you are saying matters and I care about you”. Retain eye contact, be patient and don’t fidget. Nod in agreement, even if at times you might not have understood.
If their words make no sense to you, try to look for a meaning behind them. Are they talking about their father a lot, or an old career they had? This can give us clues about how to respond.
You may have to listen to the same stories or questions over and over again. This can be challenging, but dementia affects the brain in this way. Always try to react as though you are hearing the subject for the first time. Over time you will probably develop helpful ways to respond.
Think about how you Communicate – The 5 S’s
- Slow – Speak at a slowed pace, giving the person plenty of time to respond. Be patient.
- Simple – Use clear, straightforward language with one main idea at a time. Use short sentences, avoiding complexities like irony or sarcasm.
- Specific – Talk about specific events, items or people that they are more likely to remember. Avoid pronouns like “he” or “she”, and use names more.
- Show – Use gesturing and pointing to refer to items, or use photographs to illustrate what you mean. If offering someone choices, such as two clothing options, show them as you say them.
- Smile – Facial expressions and body language remain a good way of communicating even after verbal communication fades. Use open, reassuring body language and send a message with a smile.
We all have bad days
Sometimes your friend or relative may react negatively to you. They might turn away, declining to communicate or appear to react with anger or aggression.
Their behaviour may be frustrating or confusing, but you are more likely to help them relax if you yourself remain calm. Perhaps remove yourself, even for a short break. You will both have time to compose yourselves, and trying again with a new approach may get a better reaction.
Try not to take it personally
The person may be reacting to an event or memory that is not directly related to you or the current situation. One symptom of dementia is sometimes a difficulty with controlling impulses. Combined with reduced communication options, they may resort to throwing objects or banging a table to express negative emotions.
By listening to what they are saying or doing, you may establish what they think has gone wrong or caused them to feel upset. If they are upset because they want to go home, you probably won’t be able to offer a solution. But you can acknowledge that they miss their home, and ask them questions, even if you know the answers already. “How many bedrooms did your house have?”, “Tell me about the day you first moved in there.” Triggering happy memories can have a profoundly soothing effect.
Reminiscing about days gone by is a very meaningful way to connect with someone with dementia. If doing so verbally is proving challenging, that is definitely not the end of the story.
Sitting together looking at photographs or an old, favourite, recipe book can elicit strong memories. StoriiCare offers a great reminiscing feature within their platform where you can upload unlimited media for side-by-side reminiscing sessions.
Join them where they are now, as an opportunity for reflection and reminiscence. If your loved one appears to be “in the wrong time”, then rather than saying “No, you are retired now, you don’t need to go to work, remember?” you can make their old job the topic of conversation. Ask simple questions about their job, their colleagues, or favourite workplace memories, as a way of connecting. You never know what you might learn about them in the process.
Get them involved. Everyone likes to feel useful and valuable, so why not ask them to help you with some practical tasks that might tap into their skills and interests from earlier years. Polishing brass or silverware, folding laundry, or shelling peas are all good examples.
*Information obtained from Hammond Care