Talking to a dementia patient can be an exercise in frustration. This frustration is often mutual; the patient doesn’t understand why others get exasperated. It takes some knowledge and practice to keep everyone on an even keel.
It’s the first time: Every dementia patient I’ve met has asked me the same set of questions over and over during a conversation. Telling them they’ve already asked that question and been answered isn’t helpful for either party. Instead, we have to realize that for the patient every time the question is asked it’s the first time for them. It may be difficult to answer like it’s the first time on the fifteenth repetition, but it’s what needs done.
When not to correct: Our elder has told some really interesting stories. They aren’t factual, but they are interesting. Most of the time these false memories are harmless. It’s much easier to accept them and move on to another topic. If it’s not important, leave it alone. It will reduce stress levels.
When to correct: A false memory that causes anyone pain needs corrected. A false memory of medications or medical conditions needs to be corrected. If an elder tells about abuse from someone, check it out…and if the allegations aren’t true, correct them.
Do we tell them they have dementia? That should be decided on an individual basis. I know that I am not going to tell our elder again unless I absolutely have to. She doesn’t take it well and can become quite verbally abusive. However, some people would like to know. Discuss this issue with your elder’s doctor.
Validation and redirection: These two words are your friends. Validation means take something that is true about an elder’s comments and use it to guide them into a better verbal track. This can be done when false memories are a problem. If there’s something you can validate, use it.
Redirection is sort of like changing the subject, but in a dementia patient you have to change it to something they will be more interested in than what’s being discussed. It could be about grandchildren, various aspects of their careers or memories of a favorite vacation.
In our elder’s assisted living unit there are hutches. The families are all encouraged to bring things that show important aspects of the resident’s past. The caregivers can use these things to help redirect by asking what they represent.
Our elder has pictures from her life as a Broadway actress and model. One of the men has a lot of military items and one of the women has a nurse’s cap. All of these can help make conversing easier.
The most important part about speaking to a dementia patient is to remember that they are human and we could be in their shoes at some point. Treat them like you want to be treated…with dignity.