Making connections

Presentation offers guidance on communicating with people suffering from dementia

MARQUETTE — More than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a set of symptoms interfering with a person’s functioning by affecting a person’s cognitive abilities, memory, motor function, psychological state and communication skills. The most common form of dementia in people over age 65, is Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder.

Family members, friends and many of the 16.1 million caregivers of people who suffer from dementia may wonder how to continue making meaningful connections with the person who has dementia.

To help people find more ways to connect and communicate with those with dementia, Clinical Supervisor Carol Blashill and Susie Lefler, home health aide and volunteer coordinator, both of Lake Superior Life Care & Hospice, gave a presentation April 5 at Brookridge Heights Assisted Living and Memory Care in Marquette.

“We’re here to talk about some of the positive things so that we can bring some treasures to your life and those that suffer from dementia,” Blashill said.

Blashill explained people are socialized to communicate in certain ways; however, when people suffer from dementia, they often experience short-term memory loss, which can make it difficult for them to engage in a typical back-and-forth conversation.

Because of the socialization, people tend to ask questions like “What did you have for lunch today?” or “How was your visit with your son?” But there are better ways to communicate with a person who has dementia, presenters said.

“You’re maybe going to be doing the talking, but you’re going to be talking about things that are relevant to them; they’re going to remember those things maybe from the past,” Blashill said.

An example given by presenters was: “You had tomato soup for lunch. I know how much you like tomato soup, and a grilled cheese sandwich too. Who ever thought those things would go together?”

Another important point made by presenters is that while the person with dementia may have impairments in their short-term memory, their long-term memories may remain relatively intact, providing an important avenue for connecting with them.

“When we share a memory, sometimes it can trigger a memory in them. People with Alzheimer’s have those memories too,” Blashill said.

Stories, smells, sounds, songs, objects and photos can help trigger these memories in people who have dementia — just like a song a parent played while you were growing up triggers a memory of that parent.

“Maybe we know the songs that were important to them, and when we sing them, they’ll know them too,” Blashill said.

Lefler said it’s also important to live and respect the personal truth of a person with dementia.

As dementia progresses, a person gets younger in their mind. They lose many of their more recent memories, while strong, long-term memories of their childhood and early adult life remain, presenters said.

This can mean when someone in their 80’s is visited by their adult children, they may not recognize them. But it doesn’t mean they don’t remember them entirely; it’s rather that they may be looking for a version of their family that is decades younger.

“Dementia patients don’t forget who their family members are … Remember that they still love you as a family member, (but) they may not recognize you,” Lefler said.

Presenters suggested that if a family member with dementia doesn’t recognize you, avoid correcting them and claiming that you are a family member, as they may not believe you.

Rather, they suggested, show the person a photo of yourself when you were younger or make a treasure chest with significant personal objects from their lives — this may help you make a connection with them and even hear stories you have never heard before.

Because a person with dementia may think it is a different time in their lives, they may also say things and ask questions that are not congruent with what we perceive. The presenters said it is important to recognize that correcting a person with dementia does not work, and that it’s best to align yourself with their truth.

Avoid correcting them, stay calm and stay in their truth: using those tips to improve connection and communication can help the person with dementia, as well as the people around them, feel connected.

“So, can we create a perfect day for those that suffer with dementia? Maybe not,” Blashill said. “But we can create a perfect moment, can’t we? Just by talking about a memory, making them think about a memory. When they have that memory, in five minutes, maybe they won’t remember that memory, maybe they won’t remember that conversation, but that feeling will remain and that will make them have a better day, put them in a more positive mood.”