Are you concerned about connecting with someone who has dementia?
It could be a family member or friend. Or you might want to volunteer with seniors, but you are not sure how to handle being with someone with dementia.
Well this post is for you.
Your basic starting point in starting any interaction is to avoid startling the individual. Information is not processed as easily or quickly, so it is easy for an individual with dementia to misunderstand your approach. So, keep these tips in mind.
Approach them slowly and from the front, then move to the side to appear supportive rather than confrontational. A quick approach from the front can come across as confrontational and can create a defensive reaction. You may think you are moving normally but for someone with dementia it can be happening too fast.
Depending on the situation, you may even want to wait for them to approach you. Get close enough so that they can see you and then let them come the remaining few feet.
Try and meet them at their eye level. So, if they are sitting, and you are physically able to, sit or crouch so you are at eye level. Ideally you want to be at their eye level or below. Talking above or over their head will make them feel diminished. When you get down to their level physically, you send the message that you are in this with them.
Connect with Face and Voice
The way you interact can also be part of your approach. Introducing yourself creates a connection because you have given them an anchor for the conversation.
Use their name, introduce yourself and smile. Offer your hand in a handshake. Notice the pictures in their room and ask questions about them. Show interest in their lives by asking about their hobbies or their professional occupation. Even though they are retired from that occupation, it will still form part of their identity.
Keep your voice calm and clear. You will need to enunciate your words clearly so that you can be understood. Also make sure you are facing them when you speak so that they can also take advantage of lip-reading to aid their understanding.
Distractions or loud noises can add to their anxiety. You may need to physically move to a quieter room if you are talking or turn off the television if it is too loud. Pay attention to their body language. If they are getting agitated, try and identify the source of their agitation and remove it.
Make sure to tell them what you are going to do or ask before you perform the action. This is particularly important if the action is physical. For example, you may ask, ‘can I hold your arm as we walk across the street?’
The stages of the disease can also have an impact on connecting.
While the response to dementia may be different in each person, there are some general rules for interaction based on the three main stages of the disease.
In the early stages of the disease take the time to talk directly to the person with dementia about their feelings and status. Make sure you are not excluding them from conversations.
You will need to have a lot of patience at this stage and make time to listen. They need the space to be able to express how they are feeling about things. Even though you may be frustrated too, do not interrupt, or finish their sentences unless they are simply stuck. Offering a single word may help them get unstuck and then they will be able to finish their own thought.
In the middle stage it is important to find a quiet space for one-on-one communication. Too many people can simply be overwhelming.
Be patient and supportive. Keep good eye contact to show interest when you are having a conversation. If you want to help them navigate their world, written notes can be helpful. As well, visual cues (a picture of a toilet on the bathroom door) may also be appropriate at this time.
Ask yes or no questions and only ask one question at a time. Try not to argue with them and let things you do not agree with go. There will be behavior and thought patterns that are irrational, but a rational argument will not be possible.
In the late stage it is important to treat them with dignity and respect. Famous author, Sir Terry Pratchett said:
“It seems that when you have cancer you are a brave battler against the disease, but when you have Alzheimer’s you are an old fart. That’s how people see you. I t makes you feel quite alone.”
The loneliness and isolation will be extreme at this point, so the care and concern you have for their personal dignity will have a big impact on them. Observe their body language and facial expressions. This will give you a sense of how they are feeling. Responding to emotions is important, as emotional memory remains strong. In the end your presence may be your most precious gift.
Do you need help in the area of Dementia Care? Check out this available resource: Fit Minds Family Caregiver Program
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.