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Communicating and Connecting Beyond the Disease: Part II

Communicating and Connecting Beyond the Disease: Part II

By Caitlyn Mark, Memory Care Director at Wingate Residences at Needham

Hello, world! I hope you enjoyed Part I of this two-part blog series about connecting and communicating with loved ones who suffer from dementia. In Part I, I discussed how dementia affects the brain. By offering a more scientific point of view, I hoped to provide some insight of the communication challenges individuals with dementia face.

After reading Part I, you’re probably wondering, “How am I supposed to communicate with my loved one?” This is a good time to explain my blog sign-off, “living in their reality.” To communicate with someone who has dementia, you must enter their reality and validate what they’re saying. Attempting to pull the person into your reality could create anxiety, agitation or other behavioral expressions. You should never argue or try to correct someone with dementia because they’re likely to stop cooperating and may even lose their trust in you.

Imagine you’re communicating with your mother who has dementia and she says to you, “I have to go. I must pick up my children from school and make them dinner.” This is most likely a memory of something she did when she was younger. Instead of saying, “Mom, your children are fully grown and can take care of themselves,” (trying to pull her back into your reality), try engaging with her and asking what she and her children would usually do after school, or let her know that her children are safe. Be sure to validate her feelings and reassure her by saying something like, “It’s normal to worry.” By living in your mother’s reality, you’re able to build trust and connect with her. Remind yourself to avoid negative words and statements, such as “no,” “you’re wrong,” “there is nothing here,” “your spouse has passed away,” etc. Always keep this golden rule in mind when communicating with someone who has dementia.

I always train my staff and residents’ family members to use the Positive Physical Approach when communicating with a resident who has dementia:

  • Approach slowly and from the front so they can see you coming, which gives their brain time to process that someone is approaching them.
  • Move yourself to the side and at their level so you are in a less threatening, authoritative or controlling position; they may be more likely to listen when the conversation is taking place at a mutual level.
  • Be conscious of our body language, ensuring your arms aren’t crossed or on your hips, which could send the signal that you’re angry or upset with them.
  • Greet them by introducing yourself and offering your hand, as this is a familiar greeting. If they offer their hand to you, it indicates that they are indeed willing to connect. This pleasant exchange builds a rapport and personal connection.

It’s important to note that a person with dementia who may have learned English as a second language may revert back to their foreign language during these interactions. Additionally, during these interactions, remember that how a person living with dementia communicates may vary throughout the day.

For more information on the Positive Physical Approach and ways to connect with a loved one, I encourage you to watch the following videos:

“Accepting the Challenge” with Teepa Snow, who is a dementia-care education specialist with over thirty years of clinical experience. In the video, Snow will demonstrate some of the aspects of the Positive Physical Approach discussed above.

“A Breakthrough Moment of Communication” with Naomi Feil, who is the founder of Validtion Therapy. In the video, Feil demonstrates how to connect with a person who is non-verbal. This is personally one of my favorite training videos to show to my staff and residents’ families.

Remember that you are never alone and support is always available!

Living in their reality,

Caitlyn