Dear Lighthouse Keeper,
I’m caring for my loved one at home, and try as I might, I find myself short on patience. I feel guilty, I know it isn’t their fault. I love my person, but my patience is thin and my nerves are shot!
We aren’t born knowing how to communicate with a person living with dementia—but we can learn. Improving our communication skills will help make caregiving less stressful and will likely improve the quality of our relationship with our loved one.
Create a positive vibe. Our attitude and body language communicate our feelings and thoughts more strongly than our words. In addition, the environment that surrounds us can have major positive (or negative) implications.
Try to limit distractions and noise—turn off the radio or TV, close the curtains or shut the door, or move to quieter surroundings. Before speaking, make sure we have our loved one’s attention; use our person’s name. If they are seated, get to their level and maintain eye contact.
State the message clearly. Use simple words and sentences in a reassuring tone. Refrain from raising your voice higher or louder; instead, pitch your voice lower. If they don’t understand the first time, use the same wording to repeat the message or question. If they still don’t understand, wait a few minutes and try rephrasing.
Ask simple questions, one at a time; yes or no answers work best. Refrain from asking open-ended questions or giving too many choices. For example, ask, “Would you like to wear your white shirt or your blue shirt?” Better yet, offer choices—visual prompts and cues also help clarify your question and can guide the response.
Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart. Be patient in waiting for your loved one’s reply. If they are struggling for an answer, it’s okay to suggest words. Watch for nonverbal cues and body language, and respond appropriately.
Break down activities into steps to make tasks more manageable. You can encourage your loved one to do what they can, gently remind them of steps they tend to forget, and assist with steps they’re no longer able to accomplish on their own.
When the going gets tough, stop. Distract or redirect. If your loved one becomes upset or agitated, try changing the subject and/or the environment. For example, ask for their help or suggest going for a walk. It is important to acknowledge (but not hover on) your loved one’s distress before you redirect. You might say, “I see you’re feeling sad—I’m sorry you’re upset”, “that must be so frustrating”!
Respond with affection and reassurance. People with dementia often feel confused, anxious, and unsure of themselves. Holding hands, gentle touch, hugging, or praise will get the person to respond when all else fails. A simple sincere compliment will almost always do the trick “that color is beautiful on you”.
Reminisce. Remembering the past is often a soothing and affirming activity. We may not remember what happened 45 minutes ago, but we can clearly recall our lives 45 years earlier.
Maintain your sense of humor. Use humor whenever possible, though not at the person's expense. People with dementia tend to retain their social skills and are usually delighted to laugh along with you.
Most of all, be gentle with yourself, and with your loved one. Neither of you asked for this. Find ways to give yourself a break, long or short…you need it!
Good Luck, know you aren’t alone, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Are you a part of a support group? Taking advantage of a day program? Get connected. Knowledge is power…even if the only benefit is surviving!
Leslie Symonds (Elvebak-Powell)
The Keeper of the Lighthouse