Communication is important in every relationship. Effective communication with someone living with dementia is crucial to continue cultivating trust and compassion within the relationship. At Fit Minds, we understand the importance of maintaining positive, uplifting communication for the caregiver. In today’s post, we cover ten tips to keep in mind to help you communicate with love.
1. Approach slowly and directly
Katherine was a frail 93-year-old living with dementia. A home care worker was helping her shower and not thinking too much about maintaining visibility. Katherine lost sight of her, and suddenly, someone was in the shower with her. You can imagine how frightening that would be! Katherine reacted how I think most of us would react and punched the woman, breaking her nose. It was an unfortunate incident but came from a place of fear.
Help them to orient themselves towards you by approaching from a distance, ensuring they can see you will prevent them from startling or being frightened.
As the disease progresses, remember to approach them slowly from the front, never behind, and give them time to get used to your presence. Maintain eye contact. A gentle touch on the arm may help.
2. Introduce yourself
Struggling to communicate with others can result in a loss of confidence and withdrawal. Introduce yourself daily and call him or her by name. Do not embarrass them by asking, “Don’t you remember me?” or “Don’t you remember your grandchildren?” Prompting them with your name and your relationship will reduce their anxiety. This is important for building self-confidence so they can interact with you positively.
Giving verbal cues will help orient them and help them confidently respond to you. If you say – “Hey, Mom, it’s me, Mabel,” as you enter the room, they will be better positioned to respond positively to you.
3. Respect their dignity
The emotional landscape is important when building and maintaining your relationship. How you interact with them (and how you make them feel) is important in building their self-confidence and reducing anxiety. When someone feels confused and disoriented, they will naturally feel very anxious. Acknowledging this state by making them feel loved and cared for will go a long way to reducing their stress levels.
Treat them as an adult and don’t talk down to them. Be particularly mindful of this when talking to others within their hearing range. Avoid dismissive comments like – “she’s always confused” or “he never knows where he is.” They may not remember your words, but they will remember the emotional response to those words.
4. Remain Calm
When we are not being understood, it is a natural response to increase the volume of our voice. This often happens when talking with someone who primarily speaks a different language and is having trouble understanding you, and can also occur when speaking with someone with dementia. Repeating the same sentence, only louder, is not effective!
Attempt all communication in a calm, relaxed, and quiet environment using your natural voice when possible. Shouting only increases agitation. Rephrasing information, or giving it in short, bite-sized chunks, is a better way to approach confusion in a conversation. This requires patience on your part.
5. Focus on Feelings
Try to talk about feelings rather than arguing over facts.
Discussing facts may be difficult, particularly when you know they are incorrect. The best way to approach this is to focus on their thoughts or feelings. For example, if they are concerned that something has been taken or is missing, you can focus on their feelings and help them look for it.
You can also direct conversations into areas of opinion – what do you think of this picture? That view? This sweater? Encouraging them to tell you how they feel or share their opinions is also a good way to build their confidence.
6. Invite Participation
Invite participation in activities using gentle assertion rather than a question that may be easily refused. Remember, however, that too many people in a room or at an event can be overstimulating and overwhelming – so choose your activities carefully.
Instead of asking: “Do you want to go to the coffee shop;” you might say: “Hi, Mom! Let’s go to the coffee shop for a coffee.” This cues her about your relationship and encourages her to participate without asking her to decide.
7. Keep Directions Short and Simple
A benefit of giving short, simple directions is how it gives them time to process information and react to it. You do not want to overwhelm them with too much information at once. Repeat or rephrase the direction if they do not understand you immediately.
If you want to go somewhere and they must get ready, ask them to get their jacket. Then say: “Let’s get your jacket on.” Slowly move through the actions you want them to take.
8. Give Them Time
Many activities may take longer than they once did. Do not rush them, and allow enough time to answer questions, follow directions, and express themselves at a pace they choose and find most comfortable. If you move too quickly, you will create anxiety and agitation, and they could become flustered and possibly angry or upset.
This means you should give yourself extra time to get where you need to go. If they need to leave for a doctor’s appointment, you may need to double the time it used to take them to get ready. Keep this in mind when planning so that you can also remain calm.
9. Reduce Distractions
Reduce environmental distractions and turn down or off the radio and/or television.
One of the problems with TV programming today is that the pace is likely too fast for them to follow. Topics and graphics flash across the screen at a much higher rate now. Information and images that move too quickly to be understood and processed can create confusion.
In other cases, TV programs that simulate reality can be processed in the mind as real-life events, adding to the confusion. Playing classical music or looking at pictures is more soothing than trying to follow a television program.
10. Ask Questions
You don’t always know what they want or need when they seem frustrated and temperamental. Sometimes you may feel like a detective trying to figure out what is wrong, but it is worth the effort to decode what they are trying to communicate.
Unrecognized pain can be a cause of distress and angry outbursts. Asking them if they feel sore or uncomfortable can go a long way to identifying what is bothering them.
Ask simple “yes” or “no” questions to try and understand their needs. Getting to the root cause of an outburst can help defuse it.
Which of these tips are you excited to try first?
Your relationship will continue to evolve over the course of the disease. It can be helpful to remember that dementia changes relationships; it doesn’t end them. While this journey can be frustrating and overwhelming for both of you, moments of great joy and connection will add richness to your relationship. It is our hope for you that you can savor those moments.
Talk to a Fit Minds expert to learn more about how our kits, content, and training can make a difference in the lives of seniors and their caregivers.