Creating new connections with your memory-impaired loved one


Do you have a loved one with a memory deficit or dementia who you feel you cannot communicate or connect with? Someone with whom you used to communicate regularly but who now cannot find all of the words or remember names/recent events? Someone who ruminates over things and says they feel lost or worthless? Someone who you deeply want to connect with but feel all the methods you have tried are useless?

Nothing is more difficult, especially in a close relationship, than seeing big changes in your loved one’s cognition, and not being able to communicate the way you used to so easily.

However, there are special techniques you can learn to create a new language of affinity with your loved one and restore some harmony even in the later stages of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. There is nothing more encouraging and rewarding than creating a personal connection, and seeing a shine in their eyes, a smile on their face, and a feeling of recognition from your effort to connect.

As a Professional Activity Director for the past ten+ years (and more recently a Social Worker), it has been my biggest honor to learn what “turns on the switch” for each individual with memory loss with whom I work, and to see the rewards of creating more moments of recognition and alertness, for however long they last. I have learned that by understanding each person’s own language and past interests, more moments of harmony can be created for the memory-impaired individual, and their care takers.

Some tips that I have learned are:

1. Learn to appreciate the person as they are.

Your loved one with memory loss or dementia is still the amazing, wonderful person you have always loved but has a brain disease and needs lots of your compassion and patience. It is not the person but their disease that has them forgetting things, so if you can meet them where they are in the present moment, go with the flow of what they are thinking without correcting them, and have compassion instead of arguing about their ways of seeing things, you are doing them a huge favor and letting yourself become comfortable with their process.

2. Get all the information you can!!

If you are family you can learn from your loved one’s neurologist about what stage of memory loss or dementia they have and suggestions for treatment or support. As a family caregiver or friend, you can also go to the Alzheimer’s Association website, office, call their hotline, or go to their office, to learn about all levels on memory impairment, symptoms, and effective communication methods. They have an annual education conference each year also, and wonderful caregiver trainings. Also, contact Redwood Caregiver Resource Center for information, respite, and care manager/placement resources if needed (look-up on-line for closest office).

3. When you come to see them, use a warm and caring voice and gentle knock at the door to let them know you are there and meet them at their eye/height level. Tell them your intentions and be prepared to remind them who you are. (As an Activity Director I ALWAYS wear a name tag and remind each person who I am and why I am there).

4. Learn about and/or focus on what this loved one used to enjoy and create SOOTHING environments/activities to engage while creating a new language of affinity.

I used to have a client who loved Dixieland Jazz and was from Louisiana, and also loved dancing and traveling in her younger years. She also had challenging behaviors when I saw her. For example, she would sob frequently and say “I am so confused” and then ask, “what is your name”? So, when I would see her I would use the techniques above to introduce myself and what we were going to do EACH time I’d visit, and if she asked again in the same visit I would reply as if it was the first time. Then for one activity, I would play the music and lead some gentle exercises (per my certification in senior exercise), and meet her right in the present moment with her love of music and dance. I would then bring in a picture book from the library about Louisiana and connect with her about her favorite place (sights, tastes, highlights), and use some fun trivia that would have her using her intact LONG-term memory and her joy for what she loves and we would reminisce and have brain games that she really enjoyed. We could also sing along to songs of Louisiana and I would share about my travels. I would ask how she felt at the end, and she would just beam with a huge twinkle in her eye and smile on her face, and say she was good, and I knew that this was the best language to speak with her.

From this, she learned to associate my visits with harmony and respect, as well as fun and engagement, and we created a new language of affinity that met her in the present moment. Even though she forgot I was there the day after I came, and I had to remind her the next time who I was, her family said that my visits helped her enjoy most of that current day, and soothed her otherwise agitated mood for a while, which was a priceless gift.

There are many other ways to create connection, but learning to be present; going with the flow; focusing on redirecting with music, movement, and activity can all bring joy and relief to the moment!

Diana Gruhl, MSW, QAD, CSFL, is the Owner and Business Director of Elder Active Programs, bringing memory stimulating activities and exercise programs to individuals and groups in private and Residential Care Homes.  She and her staff are trained to provide customized care and activities for seniors with memory loss and other health conditions.  Call today for a free assessment at (707) 481-5959!

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