A loved one has dementia. Their capacity to reason and remember is changing, diminishing their ability to communicate and respond. How does one know where to begin?
According to Vicki Chism, Nurse Manager at Bethesda Southgate, the key is to find the person that is still inside of them. “Meet them where they are currently at,” she says. “It takes patience and adjustment, but seniors living with dementia are still individuals who can and need to connect with people.”
Establishing and maintaining those connections can be challenging. Here are some tips for caregivers and family members to improve their relationship and stay better connected to a loved one living with dementia.
Find the Person, Lose the Fear
“People fear dementia because they don’t know what to say to their loved one,” says Vicki. “They are afraid they may say or do something that will upset them.”
According to Vicki, because dementia carries such a dark stigma, people tend to lump those living with dementia into a category of hopelessness. “Many people believe they aren’t able to do anything,” she says. However, she points out, there are many ways of interacting depending upon the stage of the disease progression.
At Bethesda Southgate, staff use memory books to review with dementia residents. “The books are their life’s story,” says Vicki. “Families also bring photos to stimulate old memories because they are more easily recalled and enjoyed.”
If the senior loves to cook, perhaps recipes could be reviewed and tried. If they worked with their hands when they were younger, maybe a craft project would be good. At Bethesda Southgate, birdhouse kits are provided for those with an interest in building, and in the spring and summer, those with an interest have a garden area they tend.
Involve their senses. Bring in music they loved in the past. Go for a short walk on a nice day. They may have an interest in an old hobby they used to enjoy. If they are able, a mild exercise session might re-energize them.
Planning these activities does require a good understanding of what a person is able to do. For example, can they still read? Do they seem to enjoy watching old movies? What are they talking about when you visit? Just be realistic about your expectations.
Vicki suggests, whatever the activity, it is important to allow the senior to do as much as they can on their own. Also, correcting a faulty memory while reviewing family history or photos can cause the senior to feel agitated and to shut down. Communication is far better than corrections.
If the senior is in an assisted living community or in long-term care, ask the staff what they have observed. Perhaps they can suggest some activities.
Picking the Best Time
Making the most of the moments together may also require finding a time that is best for the senior. Dementia residents at Bethesda Southgate have the ability to set their own rhythms as much as possible. “Some like to sleep during the day and are awake in the evening or night, so we ask family or members to stop by in the evening,” says Vicki.
Whenever you visit, Vicki notes that it is best to approach someone with dementia from the front rather than the side. “Look them in the eye, and don’t tower over them,” she suggests.
Building your relationship with your senior loved one is important. It’s also important to make sure they are receiving the care they need in a home-like environment. Bethesda offers Home Health Care for seniors aging in place, and our Memory Support communities across the St. Louis area offer dementia care and all of the comforts of home. Schedule a tour at a community near you to learn more.