Communicating with a parent, spouse, or friend who’s been losing their memory because of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia can definitely be challenging. They may constantly repeat themselves. Or tell you things you know aren’t correct. Or pretend to understand you when they really don’t.
It’s easy to get frustrated with them. You may be tempted to correct them, hoping that this will get them back on track. It’s a common mistake.
They’re not getting muddled on purpose
The thing to understand is that people with dementia have trouble following conversations because their brain is no longer working normally. It’s not for lack of trying. No amount of correction from you is going to solve that. If anything, pointing out their errors is simply going to make them feel anxious, foolish, or belittled.
It can be hard to wrap your mind around that. You can’t see what’s going on inside the head of the person with dementia. They may look perfectly “with it” and continue to make small talk just fine. You may even get exasperated and feel they’re just being difficult to annoy you.
For instance, you may ask your parent whether they’ve been taking their pills, and they say yes. But when you visit them, you discover otherwise. So, were they lying to you? Maybe not.
When you asked the question, it may have been too difficult for them to remember much of anything that had happened over the past few days, let alone whether they’d taken their pills. They may not even be able to hold on to the question long enough to remember what you’re asking. That’s because dementia punches holes in short-term memory.
Their natural inclination would be to respond as if you’d asked the question: “Are you taking care of yourself?” And they automatically replied yes, the way they might reply to anyone they bumped into who asked them how they were doing. They’re an adult, after all. Why wouldn’t they be able to look after themselves?
Or suppose you’re visiting your dad. He laments that you hardly ever drop by, even though you saw him just a few days ago. It’s difficult not to take offence, and assume that he’s trying to hurt you with the comment.
Even if you know his dementia is to blame, it’s still hard not to feel the sting. Are you that unimportant to him that he can’t remember your visits?
How to adjust your expectations
Learning how to talk to a person living with dementia involves adjusting your expectations and then changing how you approach conversations.
According to mmLearn.org, a web-based caregiver training program of the Elizabeth McGown Training Institute, “When caring for someone who has the disease, the most important thing to take care of is that person’s feelings. A person with memory loss can’t remember the minute before, they don’t know what’s going to happen in the next minute. They can’t do that kind of thinking, so how they feel right now is the most important thing to pay attention to.”
- Resist the urge to correct. If they forget something you just told them, avoid saying things like, “We talked about that just a few minutes ago. Don’t you remember?” Chances are they genuinely don’t. A better response is to acknowledge what they’ve said and then casually change the topic. Let go of the desire to correct them. It’s not going to help them, and it’s likely only going to frustrate you. The sooner you recognize that expecting them to behave “normally” is an unproductive exercise, the more likely you’ll have a successful visit.
- Try to understand and adapt to their understanding of the world. It’s not uncommon for people with dementia to come unstuck from time and think they’re living in the past, at least momentarily. If this happens, go with the flow, rather than trying to steer them back into present-day reality.
- Realize that fibbing is okay. It’s best to say things that comfort rather than distress the person, even if it means telling little white lies. For instance, if they ask when someone they love will be coming home, and you know their loved one died a year ago, reminding them of the death will only make them relive their grief. Instead, come up with a positive, plausible cover story that comforts them, something like, “Oh, he went out golfing with his buddies. I’m not sure when he’ll be back.”
- Keep what you say short and simple. Talk about one topic at a time. Use short sentences. Give the person time to process what you’ve said before moving on to something else. It may take them a while to respond. If you’re asking them to do something, give them one step at a time. Expecting them to remember a sequence of steps may be unrealistic.
- Pay attention to your body language. Even if the person has trouble following what we’re saying, they’ll still pick up on our emotions through our body language. So, if you’re anxious or upset, no matter what you say, they’ll know. And they may wonder whether they’re the cause. Be conscious of that.
Looking for more advice on how to support a family member with dementia? We’re experts in dementia care and we’re here to help. Contact us at a community near you, we’ll be happy to give you advice that’s right for your situation.