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A difficult but vital part of caregiving is really getting to know the person for whom you are caring. Without it you are a stranger, emotionally distant, and it become easier to forget that you’re taking care of a living person with a story.
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Discovering this story presents its challenges however. Normal aging makes our memories fuzzy and communication difficult. When you add illnesses like Dementia, Parkinson’s, or even side effects from various medications, it becomes seemingly impossible. There are ways to get to know a person who can’t communicate and with just a little effort and research on your part, you will discover the life you are now caring for.
It didn’t take me long after meeting my MIL to realize that something wasn’t quite right. Her communication was interesting at best.
- She had trouble recalling recent events. If she couldn’t remember a story, she would make it up as she spoke.
- Her tact in social situations was non-existent. She would say whatever popped into her mind without regard to truth or appropriateness.
- She was constantly repeating herself. This made following conversations difficult. It also meant we were constantly going over the same things and not delving any deeper into her life story.
Having lost my grandfather to Dementia, I recognized some of the signs in my MIL.
I would hear stories from family and their friends about my MIL in her “younger years”. They would tell me she was a great cook but a horrible housekeeper. She loved to shop and travel. From others, I would hear about her generosity with everyone from close friends to strangers, her singing and playing the piano in church, her devotion to God and her faith. These are things I have been told about her and while I see occasional glimpses, will never witness myself.
Why Does Getting to Know Them Even Matter?
It is so important for caregivers to really get to know the person for whom they are caring.
- It provides security to your loved one that they are not being cared for by a stranger. My MIL does not always recognize our aid even though she’s been here for over two years now. Sometimes she’s not even sure she knows who I am. Being able to reassure her with details about her history, her likes and dislikes, and even her character reassure her that while she may not recognize the person she is speaking with, she does know us.
- It is proof (to yourself and those around you) that you really care and aren’t just doing a job. When you are taking time to really get to know someone, it shows just how much you care. We had several aids before we found the wonderful helper we have now. Each one would come in and I would have to remind them about every detail concerning my MIL. They didn’t care about her preferences or her fears. No effort was taken to engage her in conversation. She was treated like an empty vessel with no further purpose. When we finally found the sweet lady that helps us now, she took the time to get to know my MIL and become her friend. The difference shows in my MIL’s temperament long after our aid leaves.
- It motivates you to keep going. There are times when life gets really hard and caregiving does not come naturally to me. It’s at those times when I start to question my own motivation. Why am I putting myself through this? Then my MIL will ask me a question about her past or I’ll see a picture of a long-departed family member and I’ll remember that she’s my family and I have a desire to know everything about her. Knowing her history and bits about her character, even though it’s not as evident now pushes me forward and motivates me to keep on caring.
How To Get To Know Someone Who Can’t Communicate
It’s really hard to get to know someone who can’t really remember the details of their life themselves. Even if she could clearly remember, Dementia often makes it difficult for my MIL to communicate clearly. There are ways around it though. While you might have to put forth a little extra effort, it will be well worth it.
Stories from Friends and Families
The absolute best way to get to know someone who can’t communicate is through the stories and remembrances of family and friends. While they can’t tell you a lot about what your loved one was feeling at a particular moment, it will go a long way in filling in the gaps of their history.
When I first started caregiving, I reached out to a lot of people I knew would have information about my MIL. My husband was able to tell me some stories. Combining those memories with old photographs helped me get a fairly solid history about my MIL’s life before Dementia.
I am forever grateful that my MIL is a visual person and loves pictures. She had albums, framed photos, and dozens of little boxes filled with photos. By putting them together with the stories from friends and family, I almost feel like I was there with her. My knowledge of her life stories and these photographs help keep her memories alive longer.
Thankfully, my MIL’s family took a lot of home movies and I have been able to glean much from watching them. I can tell her details about some of her past homes, their vehicles, parties, and activities. It often amazes my MIL that I have a knowledge of these things and she’s started to forget that I wasn’t actually there. It’s almost like she views me (and sometimes our helper) as an outward embodiment of her own mind as we are able to fill in the blanks for her.
Unfortunately, these videos are something my MIL no longer enjoys. She is at a stage in her Dementia that what she sees/hears/reads becomes her current life. She’ll see herself on the TV and believe that is who she is now.
I spent a lot of time in my first year as a caregiver on social media. I went through my in-law’s profiles and gleaned as much information as I could. In fact, I believe I learned more about my MIL from social media than any other source. I saw things written in her own words. This gave me a special glimpse into her character that I would not have had otherwise.
Learning about a person’s history and stories from their past is an important way to get to know someone but you learn very little about a person’s soul. When you see them interacting with someone, even on a computer screen, you get a lot of insight on who that person really is/was.
When my MIL is feeling the most lost and alone, I am able to reminisce with her about her character, not just facts from her past. It’s during these times she will marvel, “You really do know me, don’t you?”.
Time Well Spent
Not only does getting to know someone help you become a better caregiver, but it is validation that they are someone worth knowing. When Dementia or even just old age starts to steal away your memories, you begin to wonder if you even have a purpose anymore. Having the person who is taking care of your physical needs show you that you are worth knowing is testament that you are important and still matter.
Getting to know your loved one gives you confidence in your ability to take care of them. I know my MIL’s likes and dislikes. I know her fears and doubts. It makes me capable to advocate for her and speak with authority. I can confidently make decisions on her behalf, knowing what her desires would have been had Dementia not taken away her reason.
Getting to know my MIL beyond my own experiences with her reminds me every day why I have chosen to be her caregiver. It makes the bathroom accidents, the continuous questions, and the eye rolls at my reminders to take her medicine easily ignored. Most importantly, it turns a duty to take care of a family member into a desire to love through caregiving.
Did you like this post? How do you get to know someone who can’t communicate? Let me know in the comments below!
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