The loss of communication that comes with dementia is a hardship for everyone involved. The loss is generally gradual and is a source of constant frustration for both the person who is ill and those around him. Not only is the caregiver relationship more difficult when needs and wants cannot be communicated, but it can feel like a loved one is being taken away bit by bit. It is important to remember that the person you love is still there, and still has feelings, even when they cannot express or even remember themselves. If you are struggling to maintain a relationship with someone suffering from dementia, there are some ways you can reach out and try to improve the communication between you.
The primary thing to keep in mind is to stay calm. The part of the brain that deals with verbal language is affected by the disease, but body language and emotion will still be communicated. In fact, only seven percent of the information we communicate in a conversation is from the actual words we say. Thirty-eight percent is tone and fifty-five percent is body language. Even if you choose your words carefully, a tense posture, clipped tone, or aggravated sigh will get across and this only serves to increase the tension and confusion for the person you are trying to reach. If you feel your ire rising, take a break from the conversation and either try a different topic or just try again later.
Patients in earlier stages of dementia are aware that they are losing some of their functionality and it can be very frustrating and scary. It is easy for them to get down on themselves and be angry. The best thing you can do is help them to maintain their self-esteem and dignity. From your point of view, listening to them struggle for words or make seemingly off-topic comments, they may seem childlike in their grasp of language, but don’t make the mistake of treating them as a child. Yes, simple choices and concepts are helpful, but do not let it become patronizing or diminutive. “Good girl” may be appropriate for a child, but to an adult it is belittling and demeaning.
Your body language also conveys your respect and feeling towards your loved one. Don’t stand over them or even very close, this can be intimidating and many dementia patients will feel uncomfortable with it. Instead sit at or below their level, maintain eye contact, and try a little physical contact. This, along with a distraction-free environment, will help them focus and maintain the thread of conversation. Be very aware of body language, however – physical touch and direct eye contact may be uncomfortable or threatening in some cases. If they seem uncomfortable, back up and give them a little space to relax.
It can feel like the person you love is slipping away from you. It is a very painful and difficult journey, but remember that the person in front of you still needs comfort and love. There are other ways you can reach out and try to connect with a person suffering from dementia; we will discuss more strategies in a future post.