For many individuals, visiting and interacting with loved ones who have dementia can become very stressful, scary, and challenging. Many people just do not know what to say, what not to say, or what to do. Over the years I have come up with this list for reference and assistance!
1. Perceptions: Their reality is not going to be your reality. You are a rational person, they are no longer capable of rational thought processes. Your perceptions will probably not be theirs. You may say I would feel trapped or unhappy here, but they on the other hand may feel very content with the safety, structure and security of a memory care environment. Do not put your wants, needs or their past perceptions and personality traits onto them now. They have changed and are changing due to their disease process.
2. Contact: Always try to make eye contact when approaching them. Come to their level when speaking. Move and speak slowly and in a relaxed manner. Do not rush. Kneel down or sit at their level. Do not stand over the person as this can be very intimidating, viewed as confrontational or be scary for them. Introduce yourself and refer to them by name. Tell them why you have come, to visit, to chat to help with an activity… Do not be upset or surprised if they do not know you.
Give them plenty of time to respond and ask only short simple questions. One question at a time with ample time to respond is best. Multiple questions can lead to frustration as they are unable to process the information. Help them to be able to focus slowly on one thought or idea at a time.
3. Connecting: Try to connect on their level. Do not correct them if they say the wrong thing or seem to be confused by the day, time, or people, or surroundings. Never say don’t you remember or you remember me. It is ok if they do not and pointing out this shortcoming will often lead to sadness, frustration and sometimes anger. If they are in 1967 then let them be in 1967 and encourage them talk about it and help to perhaps bring back a positive time or memory. Watch their non-verbal communication. Watch their eyes, face, body language for cues on how to move forward while visiting. If the person becomes upset you may need to leave and then re-approach them later or on another day. This will have nothing to do with how you have acted usually and can occur due to a variety of reasons, frustration, fatigue, change of routine, etc.
4. Visiting and Communicating: Remember to reinforce the positives and what they still can do and remember. Talk about the past as remote memory is often times still intact and they will enjoy being able to recall special moments from their life. Bring in photo graphs from special times in the past as talking points and prompts. Music is also very special and can prompt happy memories. Speak to them slowly, but normally as an adult or contemporary. Listen to them and allow them time to talk freely and express their feelings. Let them know that it is ok to feel the way they do and help them to move forward if sad or upset in some way. If they ask the same question or tell the same story multiple times answer and acknowledge as if you are hearing it for the first time.
5. Never: Bring up topics which can upset them, never correct them and never argue with them!
Never tell them that a loved one has passed away even they ask several times. Re-living the death of a family member or friend will be very upsetting. It is best to say that they are doing fine and could not be there today.
6. Always: Stop what you are doing if they become upset or agitated! Change the subject, redirect the activity, give them time and some distance to work past the issue. Seek out a staff member at the facility for assistance and support if needed.
7. Remember: Sometimes just holding your loved one’s hand, being in the moment, and sitting quietly together will be enough.