Talking to Seniors with Memory Loss or Dementia
Taking care of and dealing with our elders can be all-consuming, draining, and somehow at the same time feel unfulfilling. Add memory loss or dementia into the mix, and it is no surprise that caregivers often reach out (and more often don’t!) due to an impending feeling of helplessness. Having conversations with elderly people with memory problems can be quite difficult. It can feel impossible to have a worthwhile conversation with someone whose mind and identity are slipping away. You need to understand how dementia and memory loss affect the brain, and then adjust your expectations of the interaction – it doesn’t take much to make it a good conversation.
Typical age-related memory loss includes simple things such as forgetting words, forgetting what day it is and remember later, forgetting to pay a bill, or even making a bad decision from time to time. The person may forget where they placed their keys. Signs of dementia may include frequent memory loss, impaired judgment, faulty reasoning, and inappropriate behavior. I have heard people say that it’s the difference between “now where did I park my car?” and “where did my house go?”
A person with dementia may confuse fact with imagination. When conversing with them, try to focus on the feelings they are trying to express while relating to them. Don’t just correct them or remind them that their memory is not intact, as this can add to their frustration. I know I find it irritating when someone tries to correct me all of the time (to my wife: of course I’m not talking about you!). Just imagine how that must feel for someone who is suffering from memory problems. Don’t undermine his or her confidence by constantly correcting small details. This may cause them to withdraw from suddenly awkward conversations and activities. Instead, focus on the emotions behind the statement.
There will be instances where you need to clarify or correct what the person is saying. One example is if he or she is incorrectly accusing someone of something. This is a case in which you would want to be sensitive and correct them in a way that does not undermine or embarrass them. Remember, you may need to repeat the correction at some point since they may forget the correction.
Here are some further tips in speaking to people with memory loss or dementia:
- Speak slowly and clearly
- Use simple words and short sentences
- Repeat things when necessary
- Maintain eye contact
- Ask questions one at a time and allow more time for answers
- Be positive and don’t talk down to the person
- Never argue
- Limit choices
- Don’t approach or speak from the person’s back or side
Remember, memory loss and dementia can be very difficult for everyone involved. Try to have more of an understanding of what your loved one is going through and be flexible. Be patient, positive, and know when it is the appropriate time to correct the person. Don’t expect that your conversations will have the same content, scope, or profundity that they did years ago. Just know that the interaction, even if you think it’s trivial, means the world to that person as they struggle with a disease they know they cannot conquer.
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