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Building A Connection: The Cornerstone to Great Dementia Care

An effective dementia care plan is one that honors and connects with a person’s unique life story; their culture and spiritual life, their likes and dislikes, and all the things that have shaped them into who they are. But person-centered care can only occur once the caregiver has successfully forged a connection with their care partner. Here we explore 3 keys in building a connection that seasoned caregivers swear by. So, what is the first step in building a connection with a person living with dementia?

Complete A Life Portrait

A Life Portrait is a foundational tool you can use to begin determining what activities, programs, and communication techniques will best fit that person’s specific needs. The life portrait chronicles important milestones and life events including career, marriage, family life, music preferences, and cherished hobbies, all of which serve as a helpful starting place for caregivers to build upon.

David is a physician who had a thriving pediatric practice for 30 years. He has been happily married to his wife Carolyn for 40 years, and together they have 2 children who are now grown with families of their own. David is active in his church where he served as a youth group leader until his diagnosis. He and Carolyn love to travel and have visited more than 20 countries together. He is a huge baseball fan and lifelong Cubs supporter and has taken the family to hundreds of games over the years. Carolyn shares that David’s favorite meal is her lasagna that she makes from scratch. He also has a big sweet tooth and loves chocolate milkshakes from the local ice cream shop.

Based on David’s life portrait, we know he has spent his life caring for others and may be unaccustomed to being on the other side of the caregiving equation. A successful caregiver will understand that David likely wants to be more involved in the details of his own care and may not be as receptive to a caregiver’s help. As a physician, he is probably analytical and a natural problem solver. Since he not only specialized in pediatrics but also spent his spare time as a youth leader, we understand that he has a natural connection to children and would likely benefit from some form of intergenerational therapy where he can interact with kids on a regular basis. His extensive involvement in his church tells us that having a spiritual connection is very important to him, and his Sundays have always been centered around church life. With such a busy schedule, watching baseball, or even talking about baseball, is probably a great way for David to relax, especially if his dementia symptoms are causing him stress or agitation.

Getting familiar with David’s life is a great start in connecting to the things that are important to him and make him happy. Here are a few other ways to set the stage for positive connections with David, or anyone living with dementia.

Communication Reset

Talking to a senior womanAs dementia progresses, a person may struggle to process information which can result in many frustrating moments. For this reason, it is important to use every part of our communications skillset – speaking in a calm and friendly tone while being mindful of our facial expressions and body language, using simple words and short phrases, and most importantly, giving them the time they need to hear, process, and respond in their own time.

A person with dementia doesn’t always understand what we’re saying, but they can certainly sense our emotions and will remember how we made them feel. And there are some things you should never say to them.

“It can be difficult, frustrating and confusing to care for a person with dementia. In order to be successful in changing behavior when frustration mounts, it comes down to how we respond to what is happening and what we choose to do,” says dementia education expert Teepa Snow. “When an interaction is not going well, you have a choice: you can push your agenda and watch things get worse, or you can step back and think. What’s happening is often more complicated than it appears on the surface. In an effort to be helpful, you may have created a problem. The person who is challenging you is doing the very best they can with what cognitive abilities they have left. Stop judging them.”

Validation and Redirection

It’s important to not force a person with dementia to live in our world. Understanding and adjusting ourselves to their reality is a more effective route. It is less confusing and alarming for them and far less frustrating for caregivers. Going back to our earlier example with David, Carolyn recalls a Sunday afternoon when he walked into the kitchen and frantically told her he needed to go to the hardware store to get supplies for their son’s science fair project. Instead of reminding David that their son hadn’t been in school for over a decade, she simply validated his thought process and feelings, and then gently redirected him by saying, “Thank goodness you remembered! He’ll be so excited to work on this with you! Let’s have some lunch and you can tell me all about his project so we can make a shopping list.” Relief spread across David’s face as he realized Carolyn understood why he was upset and was there to help.

According to Naomi Feil, renowned gerontologist and developer of the Validation technique, “Validation doesn’t cure that person, but it restores their dignity and their feelings of self-worth. It’s a way of being with them, of stepping into their world, feeling what they feel.”

Validation therapy is not about playing make-believe or living in someone else’s fantasy, rather, it simply serves to acknowledge the reality of the emotions that lie behind the moment to make a connection.

Empathy through Experience

close-up of elderly handsEmpathy is a byproduct of truly understanding what a person is feeling, thinking, and experiencing. But how can someone possibly understand dementia without actually living through the disease? The experts at Age-U-Cate addressed this major roadblock when they developed Dementia Live®. This experiential learning program simulates cognitive and sensory impairments that allow anyone to step into the shoes of someone with dementia for a short time so they can see and experience the world through their eyes. When we are able to appreciate the physical and emotional toll of dementia, it becomes easier for us to empathize with those for whom we are responsible. It is a truly profound exercise that serves to improve and enhance their approach to caregiving.

Instead of assuming a person with dementia is being difficult, try seeing things from their perspective. Shift your heart and mind to match theirs. This is often easier said than done. It takes practice and patience. But, connected empathetic caregivers are frequently happier and more effective caregivers.

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