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Communicating with Dementia patients can be difficult. These ten commandments will help you learn how to talk to someone with dementia.
A few weeks ago, I was changing my MIL’s bed sheets. She asked me if there was anything she could do to help. In a hurry and a bit perturbed to be having to do this chore yet again, I replied, “No, it’s easier and quicker if I just do this myself. You aren’t strong enough and can never remember how to do this anyway.”
I remember my response verbatim because I regretted it immediately after the words came from my mouth. My response to her offer took an already humiliating situation and drove it further into the ground by my thoughtless words.
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One of the hardest parts of caring for and communicating with someone who has Dementia is avoiding further confusion and conflict. We have to learn new ways of communication. So how do we keep confusion and conflict at a minimum?
Always agree, never argue
My MIL walked into the kitchen convinced it was the late 1700’s and we were living in Ireland. She had been reading a book and it became real for her. Instead of trying to convince her it was 2017 and we live in Texas, I pulled out the potatoes we were having for dinner and told her we need to thank God we didn’t have another potato crisis! Soon, she forgot her delusion and life moved on.
When we argue, however, not only does it do nothing to persuade her differently but it causes animosity and backlash. In dementia, you never know what she will remember the next day. I would hate for her memory to be of an argument.
Always redirect, never reason
In our home we have a Keurig coffee maker. We bought one of the refillable pods, in an effort to save money. K-cups are expensive!. One morning, I came into the kitchen to find out my mother-in-law put uncooked rice and various seasonings into the pod. Rather than tell her why this was a mistake, I pulled out the coffee and asked if I could make her a cup. We avoided an argument and both got our much-needed morning coffee faster.
Believe me, I get the urge to reason. I so often think that if I just explain it another way, maybe she’ll understand this time. But, the fact is, a mind with Dementia just doesn’t work that way anymore. Reason is gone so we must find another way.
Always distract, never shame
My MIL had a huge accident in her bedroom. She had taken a laxative without my knowledge the night before and it was very effective. I wanted to impress on her the importance of taking her medicines properly, wearing her underwear, paying attention to her body, and so much more! But, if I lectured her I would only bring her shame.
Instead, I got out fresh clothes and a towel and said there is no better way to start your day than a good, hot shower. I got her seated in her shower with the water going and started cleaning up. When I was done, I helped her out of the shower and into the kitchen for breakfast. By the time she returned to her room there was no evidence or remembrance of the earlier accident.
This is a confusing time for your loved one. They are aware they are losing parts of themselves. They are aware they can’t do things that came so easily to them before. Why add shame to make them feel even less like the person they were?
Always reassure, never lecture
Every few months we go through a period where my MIL no longer feels the need to wear underwear. This means multiple accidents in the bed and around the house.
The first several times this happened, I would lecture her about the necessity of wearing the underwear. I would question her motives, her thinking, anything to impress on her the importance of wearing proper undergarments. I even went so far as to have her daughter who she highly respects, create “reminder signs” that I hung in obvious places around the house.
Eventually, I realized those lectures were falling on deaf ears. Nothing I said was going to change the fact that she just didn’t “automatically” see the need to wear her undies. I took down the signs, stopped lecturing, and just frequently ask if she’s wearing her underwear.
10 Practical Tips to Better Communicate with Your Loved One with Dementia
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Always reminisce, never say “remember”
It can be so frustrating when your parent can’t remember to do something that seems so obvious to you. My MIL gets up every morning and wants a cup of coffee. We’ve made coffee the same way for years. Some mornings though she just can’t remember the steps. Rather than say, “You do this every single day,” I offer to help her make a cup and I go over the steps with her as I go.
When we’re talking about things in her past, instead of saying, “Do you remember Aunt so and so?,” or “Do you remember when this event happened?,” recall it for her. Talk about the good times, the trips, the family and friends. Look through old photos and recollect as you go. You will be surprised at how memories start flooding back for them. Not only have you created a happy moment for your parent but you’ve added a wonderful memory for you.
Related Post: How to Get to Know Someone Who Can’t Communicate
Always repeat, never say, “I already told you”
It’s so frustrating to have to repeat yourself over and over again. Always remember, when they seemingly ignore what you’ve just said or ask you to repeat, they aren’t being rude. They really don’t remember. It’s so difficult for me to ask my mother-in-law to get dressed four times before she even makes an effort to get out of bed. It’s hard for me to re-enter the room and find nothing has been done to accomplish such a simple task.
But to her, this is the first time I’ve asked. If I ask her to get dressed in anger and frustration then all she hears is my tone. She doesn’t remember being asked before so all she knows is that I’m frustrated with her for no apparent reason.
Always encourage independence, never say “You can’t”
I want to give my MIL a chance to do things on her own. Every time I get her in the shower I tell her to wash what she can and I’ll help her with the rest. When we’re picking up her room I’ll have her to start the process and tell her I’ll be in later to help her finish.
Sometimes very little or nothing gets done but at least she’s given the opportunity to try. Never assume they can’t do something. Some days my MIL can’t remember how to pick out an appropriate outfit for the day and other days she seems perfectly normal. You never know, so always give them the opportunity to do things for themselves.
Always ask, never command
When we combined our two homes, I carefully created a list of rules that I expected to be followed. They weren’t hard or unreasonable, just things I thought would help our home run in harmony. I was resistant to any disruption or compromise.
Not only did I face tremendous resistance to the rules but also great resentment toward me.
I changed my tactic. I “highly suggest”, never ask, always providing a reason these “rules” need to be followed. “Why don’t you put your glasses in the drawer so the baby doesn’t break them?”
When I do ask, I keep my questions simple, with only one or two options. She feels like she’s still making some decisions. I’ve learned to gauge when she needs me to be more authoritative and when she needs less “parenting”.
Always praise, never condescend
My MIL loves to eat. It’s a coping mechanism for her every emotion. Feeling sad? Eat something and you’ll feel better. Happy? Let’s celebrate with a meal! Bored? Might as well pass the time with a snack.
This is the exact opposite of my personality. I don’t have that relationship with food. When we first joined our homes, her eating was a huge issue for me. It seemed like I couldn’t keep food in the house. Our grocery budget was enormous!
While, I’ve put some measures into practice in our home to prevent overeating my MIL must still have access to food. I’m prepared for it so instead of complaining at her for eating three bananas, I praise her for making a healthier choice.
Always reinforce, never force
Just like my children, my MIL has trouble with urgency. She is rarely in a hurry to do anything, especially when we’re on a tight schedule. When we have an appointment, I begin getting everyone dressed and out the door at least 2 hours before our time to leave because I know I will be enforcing the same task multiple times.
If you find yourself having to reinforce a request more than a few times, try to discover why you are facing resistance.
- Is she not understanding the request?
- Is she distracted by something else when you are asking?
- Does she just need a break?
Making these rules habit
These rules or “commandments” are daunting and seem unrealistic. Of course, I fail.
Give yourself grace and start each day new. Keeping these things in mind will make living with someone with Dementia so much easier, so much more peaceful. Your relationship will not be full of conflict, there won’t be as much confusion, and you will both be able to focus on the good rather than the negative and live together in harmony.
Did you like this post? What are some tips you have for communicating with your loved one with Dementia? Let me know in the comments below!
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