It can be overwhelming when your parent or spouse is diagnosed with dementia. At times, you might feel frustrated and confused by the increasing difficulty you have communicating with your loved one. And you most likely won’t be the only one in the relationship experiencing frustration, as dementia patients often feel anger, sadness, and fear.
The dementia can cause these emotions to present as rapid mood swings, resulting in communication becoming even more difficult. Changes to daily routines, illnesses, and other stressors can make dementia symptoms even worse. Check the Alzheimer’s Association’s list of dementia symptoms.
While you can’t control someone else’s symptoms, you can control your own communication style. Your days will go more smoothly and you’ll be better able to meet your loved one’s needs when you’re aware of common missteps.
When the dementia patient is your spouse
People sometimes assume that dementia changes everything about their spouse, but this is not the case. In fact, one of the most important things you can do for your husband or wife who has dementia is treat your spouse as normally as possible. Some tips:
- Consider your spouse’s interests and preferences. What would he or she have wanted in years past, before dementia? Keep food, music, entertainment and other preferences in mind when you offer options.
- Don’t overwhelm the person with options. Keeping things simple and handling one task at a time can greatly reduce stress. Try to work through the day, bit by bit, rather than tackling complex problems all at once.
- Don’t accuse the person of lying or rush to correct a wrong date, name or fact. Engaging in a fight with a spouse with dementia won’t help the situation. Get in the habit of using neutral phrasing to defuse rather than escalate. You can then steer the conversation toward less stressful topics.
When the dementia patient is your parent
When a parent has dementia, it can put a lot of stress on adult children. In addition, being put in a position to care for a parent can make it hard to know what to say. A good general rule of thumb is to be as calm and reassuring as possible and to avoid these common mistakes:
- Don’t talk down to your parent. Using baby talk or other childish language can just make your mom or dad feel more frustrated and sad. You can try using simpler phrasing, but keep your voice in a natural speaking tone.
- Don’t assume every mood change or moment of confusion is due to the dementia. Numerous other factors that can be affecting your parent’s mood and cognition include pain, medication effects, hearing problems, loss of vision and infections. You should contact your parent’s doctor if you notice sudden changes.
- Don’t talk about your parent right in front of him or her. When you’re discussing the condition with medical staff, family or friends, acknowledge that your parent is in the room. Even if you don’t think your parent will be able to understand what is being said, either include the patient or hold the conversation in a different room, out of sight and earshot.
Positive action to take with a dementia patient
Avoiding missteps is half the battle of caretaking. You also can develop habits that will help you and your loved one feel less frustration and keep communication open as long as possible.
- Try to reduce overwhelming situations by making sure sensory surroundings are relatively calm. Dim any harsh lighting and lower the volume of loud music or television. This can help to reduce agitation and confusion.
- To facilitate communication, use body language gestures as well as visual aids such as calendars and photo albums to orient your loved one.
- Give simple, step-by-step instructions, one at a time. Too much information at once can overwhelm a person with dementia and lead to confusion and anger.
- Allow processing time. Pause after asking a question or giving an instruction to allow the person time to respond and come up with a response.
- Speak in a calm tone and try to make your voice sound as positive as possible, even when your parent or spouse is agitated or angry.
- Focus on interests or pleasant experiences. It can be really helpful for patients to continue doing the things they’ve always enjoyed. Watching their team’s baseball game on TV, seeing a favorite movie or listening to preferred music can make the day go much smoother for dementia patients. If your spouse or parent plays an instrument, keep the instrument on hand. People who play the piano, for example, often can keep playing favorite songs even after they’ve lost other skills.