Creating Quality Time with Someone with Memory Loss
Some degree of memory loss is a common part of the aging process. According to the National Institute on Aging, there are several factors that can affect memory and cognition in seniors, ranging in severity from mild forgetfulness to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Not only are memories an important part of our identity, but they also connect us to the people we love and have a shared history with, which can make memory loss stressful and disorienting for both seniors and their friends and families. However, people suffering from memory loss or cognitive problems due to dementia still have a number of useful strategies and resources available to help them cope and continue to connect and engage with friends, family, and community.
Not all forms of memory loss are created equal. Even when a senior is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, there will be good days and bad days where they will be more lucid and focused than others. Feeling confused and at a loss for how to communicate with a friend or family member with memory loss or dementia is normal, but you don’t have to avoid them or keep your conversations superficial. The trick often lies in finding a balance between the past, and their current abilities on any given day.
4 Tips on Communicating with Someone with Memory Loss or Dementia
Every situation is different, and no two people will experience memory loss or dementia in quite the same way. Here are a few strategies to help you develop an effective plan for fostering meaningful bonds and conversations through the fog of memory loss:
Follow Their Lead
Maybe you had a great week at work or school and can’t wait to see your loved one to tell them about your big promotion or accomplishment, or maybe you have already have a list of topics and stories at the ready to discuss with them, only to find they are more forgetful than usual, distracted, moody, or uninterested in conversation.
Or maybe the opposite is true — you went into the visit with limited expectations, only to find them alert, active, and engaged. Memory loss is unpredictable; staying flexible and ready to meet your loved one “where they are” that specific time can help ease their stress and anxiety (and your own).
When you’re not sure where to start, try to warm them up by asking questions and sharing information about your own life and routine. Listening is also an important tool, even if the conversation doesn’t entirely make sense to you or follow a linear pattern. They may be fuzzy on details, but helping them to feel heard is an important way to foster a connection and make them feel secure.
Help Them Fill in the Blanks
While you don’t want to get too hung up on every last detail or correct every last inaccuracy, you can help to jog their memory or answer questions when they are confused or can’t remember something significant (but again, don’t force it). For example, it’s fine to point out that it was actually your sister that scored the winning goal in her university’s basketball championships, not you, or to remind them of details like your name or identifying details about other family members. Use your discretion, and remember, spending time with them and helping them to feel at ease is ultimately more important than getting every last detail right in every conversation.
Use Visual as Well as Verbal Cues
Pictures, old letters, books, articles of clothing, and pieces of art are part of a senior’s personal history and can help to both keep them connected to their past and anchored in the present. Offer to go through old photo albums and ask them to tell you stories not just about their past. If your loved one resides in an assisted living community express interest in their new friends and neighbors and the activities and hobbies they are enjoying at the moment. Make eye contact, hold their hand when it feels appropriate, and, if they prefer to sit in silence on a particular day to watch TV, your presence can still provide comfort – even if you are not talking.
Don’t Take it Personally
Depending on the degree of memory loss or mental decline, there may be times when they don’t recognize you or remember significant details about your relationship and past. Or they may behave aggressively or not want to see you at all some days. Although this is understandably painful, it is not an accurate reflection of their feelings or the state of your relationship. Ask for help, and take advantage of resources and support services for caregivers and family members living with a person experiencing memory loss and dementia.
Memory loss can range from mild to severe and affect everything from someone’s basic quality of life to their cognitive function and overall mental health. However, by keeping these key ideas in mind, the time spent together with someone having memory loss can still be rewarding for both of you.