Many people are caring for a person who can no longer easily communicate their feelings or needs. This can be the byproduct of medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia’s, Parkinson’s disease or a stroke.
An elderly person with dementia may be trying to interpret a world that no longer makes sense to them because their brain is interpreting information incorrectly. Sometimes the person with dementia and those around them will misinterpret each other's attempts at communication. These misunderstandings can be difficult, and may require support from outsiders such as the Alzheimer's Association or the National Family Caregiver support program.
Difficulties with communication can be upsetting and frustrating for all involved, but there are several ways to help make sure that you understand each other. This can be accomplished through speech, reading, music and touch.
Reading - Most people struggle to fill the time when they are visiting a person with dementia. They often talk & talk & talk hoping that something will ignite a flame behind the dead stare of their loved ones eyes. Author, Laura Bramly faced this issue with her mother who was suffering with vascular dementia and living in a nursing home. One day, out of sheer desperation she picked up a coffee table book and started showing her mom the pictures. At the end of the book her mom said,”again.”
Based on that singular experience and the inability to find a picture book that would be appropriate for a person with dementia she wrote ElderCareRead: Life Scenes 1. This wonderful celebration of life provides photos, words and exercises to help stimulate and encourage interaction between the reader & the older person.
Music - Another powerful communication tool is music. Music can be soothing and provide comfort for an agitated Alzheimer’s patient. Most dementia care communities incorporate a music program as an activity for their resident’s. Many folks in these communities have difficulty holding a conversation by they sure can sing! If you are using music as a means of communication, watch the person’s body language carefully to see if they are enjoying it, or should adjustments be made such as volume or style of music.
Touch - Physical forms of communication such as touching, hugging & hand holding can covey a strong message of affection. No matter what stage of life we are in a gentle touch or a loving hug can brighten our day. However, people with dementia can find touching and hugging overwhelming. If you loved one appears frightened or pulls back, respect that.
Speech – Speak clearly and ask simple questions. Try not to ask direct questions, this can cause frustration if the person can’t find the “right” answer. Use a quiet and calm tone and if the person does not understand the question try visual cues instead of repeating the question over & over. Remember they can hear you they just can’t interpret the words you are saying!
If you are getting little response from the person, it can be very tempting to speak about them as if they weren't there. But disregarding them in this way can make them feel very cut off, frustrated and sad. Make sure you do not speak down to the person or treat them like a child…no one likes to be patronized!