If you plan to visit with loved ones who have dementia, please don’t start out with questions. If you do, there is a very good chance that you will raise their anxiety levels to a point where it will elevate their confusion.
Questions can be the root of all evil when it comes to dementia patients. For instance, consider a restaurant setting. You may be wondering why they become so perplexed in this atmosphere, but consider that the first thing that happens when you walk in is that you’re usually asked “Would you like a table or booth?” “Coffee or tea?” “What kind of dressing would you like on your salad?” Even the simple action of a menu being placed in front of them can cause confusion. Trying to make decisions and answer questions can be embarrassing for them. Add to this the typical din of a public place with multiple conversations going on in the room, maybe even loud music. On top of everything this is an unfamiliar environment to them and that may explain why their anxiety level goes through the roof.
As caregivers, we need to learn not to approach a dementia patient with multiple decisions and questions. Instead, begin with a simple, uncomplicated introduction. Yes, even if you’re the spouse your first words should be “Hi, my name is Ellen. I’m your wife.” Don’t be abashed by this. The worst thing you can do is to say, “Hi, do you remember me?” This is especially true in hospitals. A healthcare professional should identify him or herself immediately, looking the patient in the eyes and saying something like, “Hi, my name is Joanne. I’ll be your nurse today.”
Forcing patients to struggle for answers right off the bat will get you absolutely nowhere. If you must ask important questions, slowly work your way into them. Let their upper gears start turning first. If approached correctly, you may even get the correct answer. However, if this is about an important medical or financial matter, these answers need verification from a family member or the patients’ advocate.
Another important piece of advice is, before you introduce yourself, make sure they have visual contact with you. Don’t walk up behind them and frighten them.
Most of these suggestions refer to those patients who are in the moderate to latter stages of the disease, but even those in the earlier stages may be more confused in a setting such as a hospital. The most important factor is to make sure they receive the respect that they truly deserve.
You may be lucky enough to have an exceptional conversation with any or all dementia patients, just by starting it out correctly. You know what they say about first impressions.
Gary Le Blanc of Common Sense Garegiving is a dementia specialist who teaches seminars for memory care staff, and families and friends whose loved ones are impacted by memory impairment. He is the author of Managing Dementia and Alzheimer’s Behaviors and Staying Afloat in a Sea of Forgetfulness. Gary provides training for the staff of Sunshine Gardens in Crystal River.