By Jane Verity © Dementia Care International
This article will be helpful for any family member or friend, whether you are visiting in person, or are connecting from a distance by telephone or perhaps Skype.
One of the most natural ways to greet each other is to start off by asking, ‘How are you?’ This question seems to be part of a universal greeting in most languages however a person with dementia may take such a question quite literally and is likely to share any aches, pains or ailments they may be experiencing. After such a reply it can be a challenge to return the conversation to a more positive topic.
Instead of asking this specific question, give the person a gift by making them feel special. Try starting your conversation with, ‘It is wonderful to talk with you,’ or ‘It is wonderful to see you.’ This instantly enables the person on the receiving end to experience they are special and there is no expectation that any particular reply is required. As the conversation progresses, we may be likely to ask practical, factual ‘doing’ questions about their day such as, ‘How was your day?’ ‘What have you been doing?’ or ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ Often these questions may be met with surprising hostility or anger even to the point of aggression and accusation. To understand such a reaction, it is necessary to step into the shoes of the person with dementia.
‘I am sitting here all on my own, I have lost my role in life and everyone else is doing what I used to do. My social calendar is empty, so many of my friends have died and my family is busy.
Sometimes I do not remember when I have had a visitor and I just want everything to be different. I am longing to feel needed and useful; I am longing to again have someone to care for; I am longing to be an active contributor to life and be able to make a difference to other people.
So when you ask me, how was my day, what have I been doing or what am I doing tomorrow, these questions only remind me of those important things I no longer have in my life and that hurts. It is like a knife turning in my wound and in self-preservation, I may give you an abrupt answer or I may even get angry.
Instead of asking me questions, enrich my life with the gift of making me feel special. You could talk to me about when someone has been to visit me. Recount the joy I felt in their company and remind me of key parts of the day that may be stored in my long-term memory. (Read more in our article, How to Improve Memory)
You could also tell me about your day but please remember to make it relevant to me so I feel included and uplifted. You could tell me of a phone call from someone I know too and pass on this person’s regards to me. All I ask is that you shift your language from what you normally use in your everyday conversations with family, friends and colleagues and where your days are filled with activity and a busy social life.
Empathise with my situation and think of my emotional needs which are to have my self-esteem boosted, to feel loved, and if at all possible enable me to feel needed and useful and have the opportunity to care.
When you make this shift our conversations will profoundly change and we will both enjoy our time together, even when you are far away and cannot sit with me. I will feel included and that I am a special part of your life.’
Before you talk to the person with dementia, think through how you can use the time together to enrich both of your days. The short term investment you make in shifting your language from asking questions to giving the gift of boosted self-esteem will leave you both feeling that the experience has been uplifting and will lead to more positive conversations.