We all have the best intentions when speaking with someone we love, but you may not realize the negative effect your choice of words can have on a person living with dementia. Here are 5 common communication mistakes, and how to correct them.
- “Do you remember…” One of the worst things you can do is force a person with memory impairment to recall something from the past. Even if it was only a few moments ago, never “quiz” a person with dementia. It puts them on the spot and can cause stress or embarrassment. So instead of saying, “Do you remember when we went to New York City?”, simply say, “One of my favorite vacations is when we went to New York and got to visit Central Park – we had so much fun together!” You’ve done the work for them and turned this into a reminiscing activity.
- “Mom, I just told you that.” While long-term memories can stay intact throughout the early to middle stages of dementia, short-term memory is the first to go. You will need to get accustomed to repeating yourself which can get very frustrating, very fast. When you say “I just told you that”, you are reminding them that their memory is fading, or worse, your tone may tell them they’ve done something wrong which can cause them to withdraw from the conversation in embarrassment. As hard as it will be, you must answer them again, without agitation in your voice. Remember, they are not giving you a hard time on purpose, it is simply a side effect of their disease.
- Reminding them of a traumatic past event. We’ve been taught that honesty is the best policy, but that’s not necessarily the case in the world of dementia. Your loved one may ask about people or situations from the past as if they haven’t yet happened. A spouse that they’ve since divorced, a child they’ve lost, the death of a close friend. While telling them the truth may seem like the right thing to do, in these situations, consider the kindness of a “therapeutic lie”. When the truth may cause more harm than good, it’s best to carry on in their reality for the moment. So if they ask to speak to a person who has passed away, tell them you plan to see them later that day and will be happy to pass along their message and redirect the conversation to another topic.
- Don’t try and argue. Ask any caregiver and they will tell you – you’ll never win an argument with a person living with dementia! Not only will you upset them by trying to “correct” what they believe is the truth, but you will end up upsetting yourself in the process. It’s a losing battle! Instead, practice redirection (changing the subject), or, simply go along with their version of the facts in that particular moment. There is a reason improv techniques are often used by dementia caregivers! These skills will help you roll with the punches of the dementia journey.
- What would you like to do today? Open-ended questions can be frustrating for a person who already has trouble with recall. Just the thought of trying to come up with an answer may be too overwhelming. Instead, offer simple choices. “Would you like to go to the park or go to the movies today?” This is especially helpful with mealtime or getting them dressed in the morning. It empowers them as the decision-maker and makes life easier for you as their caregiver!