When your loved one is suffering from dementia, you are often struggling alongside him or her, learning how to cope with role reversal and how to communicate lovingly and effectively. Changing your communication style is necessary to maintain positive communication, encourage your loved one, and prevent distress. We hope these tips are helpful as you work to adjust to the new normal of loving somebody with dementia.
Nothing hurts more than stopping by to visit somebody close to you in a memory care facility only to find that she doesn’t remember who you are. Not only is it painful, but it can lead to frustration, shame, and embarrassment for your loved one. You can avoid all of these unwanted outcomes by simply introducing yourself right when you get there and often afterward. Try a casual introduction like this: “Hi Mom. It’s me, Jane.” If you can tell she’s confused a few minutes later, you can say it kindly again: “It’s me, Jane.”
Dementia makes it increasingly difficult to process complex information. When speaking with your friend or family member experiencing memory loss, speak slowly in a regular tone of voice, choosing simple words with fewer syllables. Ensure sentences are short and clear.
Don’t confuse clear, simple communication with baby talk. Older adults can hear lower voices better than high voices, and baby talk can feel condescending to an older adult with rich life experiences, especially if he or she raised you. Treat your friend or family member like the competent, experienced adult they are by speaking your regular tone of voice.
Talk about the things your loved one knows and remembers, like their childhood, home, or the occupation they enjoyed when they were younger. Dementia often affects short-term memory without impacting long-term memory, especially in earlier stages of the disease. For this reason, your friend or family member will likely take comfort in memories that happened before the disease struck, while identifying less with memories that have occurred since the diagnosis or symptoms began. He or she may not be able to recall recent events but recall memories from kindergarten or raising their own children when they were young.
If your friend or a family member has forgotten a painful memory – such as the loss of child or spouse – you may choose not to remind them if will cause them to experience the stages of grief over and over again. It’s important to know that every resident of a memory care facility experiences dementia and memory loss uniquely. In some cases, believing their spouse or child is alive but does not visit is more painful than knowing that they have passed. Use your judgment and rely on the expertise of staff to decide what to share and when.
Acceptance is critical while you grieve the partner or parent your loved one used to be. Asking questions like, “Do you know what day it is?” or “Do you know who I am?” might help you better understand the stages of dementia your friend or family member is experiencing or gauge their level of understanding, but it can quickly lead to confusion and frustration for the person struggling to answer these basic questions. Instead, simply offer love and understanding, providing the information they need. “Today is Monday, March 5th, and it’s 53 degrees outside,” is a great example of a way you can add value.