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Talking with Dementia or Alzheimer’s

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There are a lot of misconceptions about Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia in general, and these misconceptions can make simple conversation frustrating for both the person with the condition and the well-intended caregiver.  If you are in a position during these holidays to converse with someone with dementia, it is important to follow some basic guidelines so that the conversation can be more positive for you and for the person with dementia. 

We may get the notion that dementia means that a person is “losing touch” – yes and no.  Dementia can be as varied as people themselves are different from one another, and it does not progress in a straight line decline over time.  Most of us have conversations that have a fairly clear beginning, middle and end…or with best friends, it is just a conversation that never ends.  Here are some very basic tips that can help you and your loved one with dementia to move beyond what has the potential to be awkward or frustrating for both of you.

1.    Avoid loud or unfamiliar environments when you are selecting a place to have a chat; both of these are very unsettling to a dementia patient and aggravate inherent difficulties in concentrating and conversing.

2.    Be patient and sensitive to your loved one with dementia; they may feel afraid, because they are “lost” and your validation is important.

3.    Be empathic by trying to appreciate what it may be like to be in the shoes of the person sitting across from you who lapses into moments of “talking with a stranger” in a strange place and they cannot remember the way home.

4.    Do not get caught up in whether the person is “making sense;” it is not about winning an argument about what decade it is as much as passing some pleasant time with a loved one.

5.    Keep the conversation light and follow their lead; they may wish to talk about family and happier times, even if they cannot remember family names – let them revel a bit in what is a safer place for them.

6.    Monitor your body language; even though you are carefully screening what you say or don’t say, your posture or facial expression may be screaming at your loved one – take calming breaths and relax.

7.    When all else fails, simply ask them how they are; they will always know how they are, and it will give them comfort that they know the answer to that question.

      There is a lot we don’t yet know about dementia, but these tips can help you have a conversation that all parties can enjoy.  Go to the Alzheimer’s Association web site for more information, and be prepared for lucid surprises along the way as well as the occasional recitation of Shakespeare, the Pledge of Allegiance or a prayer from someone who can’t remember what they had for lunch.  And did I mention, be patient – with yourself.  As I have said many times: You don’t have to be a perfect.  You just have to be “good enough.”

      Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  Please email your questions to ccbishop@creativecasemanagement.com.

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