Interacting With People With Dementia – What You Should Know

By Scott Eckstein| Caregiving

I recall my grandmother would rattle off at least four or five names before she got to mine and I would tell her, “Grandma, I’m Scott, you’ve known me all my life! Why can’t you remember my name?” Yes, I was around seven or eight when I was saying this, but I would get so frustrated. Maybe it was setting the stage for my career.

I learned early in my senior care career that the key to successfully working with residents and families is patience and understanding. It may seem obvious, but it often involves taking a step back to appreciate the gravity of each family’s state. Everyone’s situation and family dynamic is different. Most had not had an opportunity to learn even the basics of interacting with someone with dementia. Their situation can go from mother/daughter to mother/caregiver in a nanosecond. When you are in the moment, seeing the big picture is often difficult. Especially when it’s someone close to you.

Even with training, it can be very difficult caring for and relating to with someone with dementia. However, there are some practical facets of interacting with someone who is functioning with one form or another of dementia. Acknowledging the dementia is usually a first positive step. Here are a few things you can do:

1. Have a positive interactive environment. A positive mood, tone of voice, and body language will go a long way to providing a better opportunity to positively interact with someone with dementia. Showing affection is also a good way of creating a positive atmosphere. The person with dementia might not know who you are, but they may know that they know you or that you are not a threat to them.

2. Make sure you have the attention of the person with dementia. Remind the person with dementia who you are, your relation to them, and anything else that may help them focus on what you have to discuss with them. If they still do not know who you are, don’t focus on that. Also, if they are sitting, sit with them. If they are standing, stand with them. Look them in the eye. Avoid any even seemingly threating interaction.

3. Be clear. Don’t use complicated language or raise your voice.

4. If you are not having success, re-approach your loved one at another time or ask someone else to try. Sometimes just a different face will diffuse a situation.

5. Asking yes or no questions and/or giving simple choices are also ways for a chance at successful communication.

6. Keep body language in mind. Offer words to help your loved one to communicate what they are trying to convey or understand.
Sometimes you will know what they want — other times you won’t. Just do the best you can. With dementia, it usually doesn’t get easier. Be patient with your loved one and yourself.

7. Redirect when communication becomes difficult. When your loved one is trying to do something and it is not going well, and frustration escalates for both of you, redirection, just as re-approaching is a very good way to prevent difficult behavior from getting worse. The ability to diffuse stressful situations is very important and will become an essential skill in the care of someone with dementia. When in distress, those with dementia can become more confused, anxious and even hallucinate or just believe things that didn’t happen did.

8. Don’t forget to be reassuring. To help your loved one calm down, holding their hand combined with gentle praise might help them feel comforted.

9. Reminiscing is a great way to communicate and calm someone with dementia. Since those with dementia can often recall times from their past more easily, but their short-term memory fails them, they can connect with you and others to events from their past. If you stay away from recent events and focus on the past you might be able to engage them for a longer period of time. Try asking questions about their past. This will help you during these times and one of the reasons good day care, home care and assisted living communities ask for a detailed family history prior to entrance or service.

10. Keep things light. Laugh together. Most people with dementia I have worked with, including my own family, have kept their sense of humor and really appreciate a good laugh.

Caring for someone with dementia is tough work. A true labor of love, sure, but easy…definitely not! Be sure to ask for help. Caregiver burnout is a real thing and something I will discuss in the future.

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”  -Lao Tzu

Check on someone you care about today.