How to connect with someone who has dementia

Dementia is a progressive illness that affects how a person communicates.

The signals passed between the brain cells are affected which causes deterioration in a person’s memory and thinking.

Due to the impact dementia has on a person’s memory, you may find your loved one struggles with a number of tasks, such as:

  • Remembering certain events
  • Remembering dates, names and places
  • Remembering how to perform certain, simple tasks such as buttoning up a shirt or brushing their teeth
  • The ability to locate certain items
  • The ability to make quick decisions such as deciding on a meal to eat
  • The ability to reason and rationalise

Dementia is a common illness amongst the elderly and it can be very distressing for loved ones to see these abilities deteriorate in such a way, to a point where it can become difficult to remember memories, character traits and even family members. With that being said, dementia has many stages and although the illness affects the person’s ability to remember or learn facts such as names, dates, places and so on, there are techniques that can help to manage this.

Connecting with an individual who has dementia is possible, and there are plenty of ways you can spend time with your loved one in a productive and meaningful way. Below, we take you through 12 proven techniques to help you connect with somebody who has dementia.

One of the most important things to remember when communicating with someone who has dementia is to communicate in the right way. A central trait of dementia is a struggle with communication. Therefore, it’s important to speak clearly, slowly, and confidently and to ensure you are making eye contact. Speak positively, as this will reassure the person you are talking to and help avoid potential upset or distress which is often caused by disagreements about minor detail and facts.

Conversation can be an important way to connect with your loved one but covering too many topics at once or asking too many questions can cause confusion and agitation. You can avoid this by focusing on one topic at a time and using open-ended, observational language. Avoid direct questions, which may cause your loved one to feel pressured or confronted.

Instead, try to use an alternative method to spark a conversation. For example, rather than saying “Do you remember your 40th Birthday Party?”, show them a photo, saying something like “This looks like a lovely party. What do you think?”.

Or, instead of saying “Do you remember getting married?”, show photos of their wedding dress, or a photo of the day, and ask, “What do you think of this dress?”. This approach can help your loved one feel in control of the conversation and minimises the risk of causing distress by making them feel less vulnerable.

  • Ensure a calm environment

For those with dementia, loud, stressful environments with too much stimulus can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming. If you do go out for the day to a café or a busy public place, try to find a quiet spot where there are fewer people; if you are going to the supermarket, aim to go at quieter times such as a weekday morning or late evening. Too much stimulus and people to focus on increases the likelihood of stress and confusion, so making these small changes to your daily activities can be an effective and simple way to keep your loved one feeling happy and safe.

Arts and crafts are a brilliant way to engage and stimulate somebody who has dementia, as they require a certain amount of focus and cognitive function. You can find hobbies that are suitable for those suffering from dementia easily online, or consider some of the following:

  • Painting by numbers – by providing a set template to follow, the dementia sufferer won’t feel pressured to devise an idea themselves. Simple shapes or common everyday items or scenarios can be good to paint to help them identify or memorise things from their past.
  • Knitting – knitting involves working with the hands and repetition which is perfect for cognitive function and stimulating brain activity. It’s also an activity that can be enjoyed with other people which encourages interaction and can inspire your loved one to feel involved and included.

Dementia is a complex disease which can often be helped by stimulating all of the senses. Consider smells, visual stimulus, music and touch, as these can stimulate the brain and help your loved one to remember, helping them to feel relaxed in their environment. Music is a great trigger for memory, as people with dementia often find they remember lyrics to songs and pieces of music, in the same way that many of us can recall entire songs years after last hearing them. This can also be a great way to connect to one another.

Smells can help to evoke memory and help your loved one make decisions about what food they may like to eat if this is a task they sometimes struggle with. Visual stimulation such as art shows or nature programmes on TV can offer stimulation that is easy to focus on and interpret as it involves less ‘mental juggling’ as opposed to a game show, film or drama which can be more complex.

Touch is an incredibly important sense and can be triggered by simply holding hands or hugging your loved one. It can help to focus the brain and engage the individual, allowing them to feel safe and calm without too much stimulus or effort on their behalf.

Activities that engage the brain, stimulate memory and thought processes can be excellent for someone with dementia.

These can include:

– Puzzles

– Simplified or traditional board games

– Online apps specifically designed for those with dementia

– Crosswords

– Colouring

There are plenty of games out there that can stimulate the brain and many that are designed to help people with dementia at each stage of the disease.

  • Talk about their favourite topics

Sometimes, stimulating topics of conversation can be all your loved one needs to connect with you and feel present and included. Consider some of your loved one’s favourite topics and begin an open-ended conversation which can often trigger memories, events or facts that they may recall as the conversation goes on. This is also a great way to connect as the conversation won’t be one-sided or led completely by you and your loved one will feel in control and included.

  • Have patience when dealing with behavioural changes

It is important to remember that dementia is a complex disease, and your loved one may be more responsive on one day compared to the next. Dementia is often more confusing to the person experiencing it than to others around them so it is important to approach every situation with patience and an open-minded attitude. Expect less and this way you will avoid putting pressure on your loved one to remember certain facts or memories. The more calm, approachable and gentle you are, the more chance you will have of maintaining your connection and avoiding distress.

Consider activities that involve problem-solving, as this will enable your loved one to focus on one thing that they feel in control of. They can consider how they will work out the problem, and if presented in a relaxing and trusting environment, they will feel at ease. The less distressed they feel, the happier they will be exploring certain memories again.

If you are able to, try to think of easy, outdoor activities to enjoy that require minimal interaction and thinking. Being outside can reduce blood pressure and create a calm environment, so somewhere such as a butterfly house or botanical garden that is relatively quiet and peaceful are ideal places for a day out with your loved one. These are always preferred over busy town centres or tourist attractions that can cause overstimulation and distress and are great ways to engage with nature.

  • Offer stimulating exercise

Exercise is an important way to focus and engage the body and mind and can have positive results for those with dementia. Exercise releases endorphins which clear the mind and reduce stress and it’s the perfect way to get your loved one moving without creating too much pressure or distress. There are plenty of exercises that are designed for those with dementia and that can be enjoyed at home as well as part of a class. Exercises such as dance, Tai Chi, swimming and walking sessions are all great ways.

Animals and pets are known to significantly reduce anxiety and stress, so much so that many care homes offer sessions where animals are brought in to spend time with the residents. If you have a pet, you can introduce them to your loved one or ensure they spend some time together, otherwise, enquire at their care home about such options. Animal therapy can significantly reduce feelings of depression and loneliness and offers different stimulation to everyday tasks.

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