The success or failure of our relationships depends a great deal on the success or failure of our ability to communicate with the people in our lives. When we converse with them, we have certain assumptions about what the other person will know and understand that enables us to communicate in ways that promote the relationship instead of inhibit it. When these assumptions aren’t met, communication suffers in part because us humans find it difficult to take the perspective of someone who is more naïve than us.
Work by Dr. Susan Birch at the University of British Columbia has found that adults suffer from what she has termed the “curse of knowledge”. That is, when we have a memory or knowledge of some event, we are biased towards believing that everyone shares this knowledge. This bias is greater for personal events than for objective facts and we use this bias when making our assumptions during conversations with others. Imagine, then, being in a conversation with someone who should share the same memories as you, but who, in fact, no longer remembers everything. Communication breaks down and with that, so does the relationship. This is what happens when a loved one suffers from dementia.
As we are not equipped to automatically compensate for this newfound naiveté, we can end up unconsciously sabotaging the relationship by having erroneous expectations of what communication should look like. When it fails to meet our expectations, we get frustrated, hurt, and even angry at the other individual, who lacks the ability to understand what has gone wrong. Yet connection with our loved ones is essential – for them and us. With that in mind, here are some of the ways you can connect with your loved one with dementia, even when things are hard…
1. Live in the Moment
Get rid of your expectations for what a visit will look like, but rather enter the visit with an open mind as to what you might find. You may find the person you have known all along waiting for you, or you may not. If it’s a good day, go for a walk, talk about what’s new in your life, and enjoy the visit. If not, roll with it and see how you can help perhaps considering some of the other suggestions below. When you can focus on the moment and approach it differently each time, you avoid the pitfalls of having expectations that cannot be met and the ensuing sadness and frustration that comes with these failed expectations.
2. Go Back to the Past
People with dementia may not remember what happened recently (or even 10 years ago in some cases), but their very long-term memories are there. If your loved one is having a bad day and cannot remember much of anything in the recent past, take the time to live in the distant past and learn about what your loved one’s life was like back then. Learning about your loved one’s childhood or early adulthood will give you more insight into the person you love and help you feel more connected overall while making visits more enjoyable during those “bad days”.
3. Listen to Music
Music is known as the universal language for good reason. Music crosses culture, age, and is also known to have calming effects on us (provided we like it). If you visit your loved one on a bad day then sometimes the best thing to do is not force conversation, but simply put on some music and just sit and listen with them. Bad days can often include a fair bit of anxiety for our loved ones and so anything we can do to calm them can be very helpful and music is one of the best ways to do this. The music can also serve as talking points if conversation is difficult.
4. Visit with Pets or Children
There is research that suggests both pets and children can help those with dementia (and the elderly in general). Pets have been found to lower blood pressure and can help increase social interactions. They can also provide a good focal point of attention on bad days so you don’t get angry or frustrated. Children also help our loved ones by increasing social interaction and engaging in a fun and relaxed manner. Notably, in some parts of Europe, the positive effects of children have led to the creation of mixed-use homes whereby retirement or nursing homes also include daycares so the elderly and young socialize on a regular basis. We may not have that here, but you can create a miniature version by bringing your children for a visit.
5. Use Nonverbal Cues to Communicate Love
We often forget that we can communicate a lot without speaking. When we meet people for the first time, it is the nonverbal cues that give us our first impressions and shapes the way we will interact with them going forward. For our loved ones with dementia, they may feel they are meeting us for the first time when we visit or they may feel anxious and scared on any given day when things don’t seem familiar. In these cases, the messages we send non-verbally are equally or more important than what we can tell them verbally. Maintaining eye contact, gentle touch, smiling, and other positive gestures can help put our loved ones at ease and help us communicate our positive feelings for our loved ones.
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