Don’t Drift Apart: Stay Close To Relatives Living With Dementia

A list of top tips for relatives of those living with dementia, to help maintain relationships that may be tested as a result of the difficulties associated with dementia.

Families can feel their visits to a relative or friend turn into sad situations as there is no connection between them – the visit feels like a failure and the family often wonders if it was worth making that visit. Here is how to maintain a connection:

  1. Don’t correct them If they have memory difficulties they may not recall previously learned information or have the ability to store new memories. A helpful approach is to acknowledge what the person is saying, while neither correcting nor agreeing with them, and reflecting what they have said back to them as a question, showing genuine interest.
  2. Don’t pressure them to be ‘as they used to be’ While it’s natural for families to want their relative to be as they once were, it can cause problems if the person is put under pressure to perform to this previous level. Help them to do what is meaningful and important to them. For some people this means enjoying the process of an activity rather than being concerned about what the end result turns out like.
  3. Go with the ‘flow’ and stay in the moment Most of us are multi-tasking and planning a subsequent activity while we are carrying out the current one. If someone has dementia it is more difficult to think ahead and plan, especially if they are concentrating on what they are doing. Keeping the attention fixed in the present moment is beneficial in this situation.
  4. Use objects Objects are a great way to connect individuals as they share items that spark some reminiscing, such as souvenirs from holidays, treasured gifts from grandchildren or items of clothing or jewellery that have a significant link to an important episode in the person’s life.
  5. Use body language If an individual has lost their spoken language skills they will still be communicating through their body language. Making eye contact, using all the muscles of the face to show genuine warmth, compassion or humour with the person can result in a meaningful experience for both people involved. Even eyebrow movements can add meaning to an interaction and can be used skillfully to convey emotions.
  6. Think about what the person is feeling Sometimes they may say something that doesn’t make sense but rather than argue over the facts, it is often more helpful to focus on the feelings the person is showing through their tone of voice, facial expression and posture. Show the person you understand that their feelings are true and valid, even if you do not agree with the facts.
  7. Present the world through all of their senses Many people with dementia are unable to make sense of their world through one sense but can through another. We know an object through a combination of touch, sound, smell, taste and how it looks. For example, chocolate is not just about taste, but the familiar smell, crackle of the wrapper and the snap of the pieces. Share the enjoyment of an object by focusing on all five senses..
  8. Children and animals are great at non-judgemental acceptance Often people with dementia enjoy seeing children play near them and, may enjoy joining in some of their play, such as shape sorting or colour matching games. Children and animals are living in the present moment so, if given the opportunity to engage with someone with dementia, they will relate to the person as they are and not how they think they should be.
  9. Use helpful language Many people with dementia find it difficult to follow complicated language from others, particularly if it is too fast. Family members and friends can help by slowing down the pace of their speech and reducing the descriptive words they use. Speak in short sentences without conjunctions such as ’and’ to connect one sentence with another. In this way speech becomes more clear and easy to follow.
  10. Use appropriate touch Touch is a powerful communicator and human contact supports a sense of self and connection with others. Smoothing hand cream into the person’s hands can be a sharing moment, so also bringing a small bowl of warm water and some soap to the person and washing hands together.

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