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How to support someone who is living with dementia

Picture this. An older gentleman sits still, looking frozen with his eyes fixed in a far-off gaze. His daughter is sitting across from him and is looking a bit sad and bored. Typical 2-way conversations with her dad have become more and more difficult the further his dementia progresses. The last few visits to his long term residence have left her feeling heart broken and powerless to connect with him. She thinks back to the days when the two of them had good, long chats and shared laughs. He was so smart and interesting.

Suddenly he blinks and his daughter sits up and leans forward as she notices that there is a flicker of recognition in his face. A grin appears and his eyes and head move as though tracking movement behind her. Excited to see signs of expression on her dad’s face, she turns and sees a young lady, likely in her 20’s, walking down the hall. Announcing with conviction and certainty, her dad explains that this was their next door neighbour back in the days when he himself was a young man. Her heart sinks.

This scenario is very typical and there are a few ways this could go. Either, she can tell her dad that he is wrong—that the young lady is not their next door neighbour and from decades ago. This would leave him feeling scolded and contradicted. Or she can use logic and try to reason that this can’t possibly be the case because she is simply too young to have been their neighbour so long ago. A response like this may result in him feeling humiliated or defensive.  Another option can be to simply smile and slip into her dad’s world and go along with what is real for him in that moment.

Holding a regular conversation with a loved one who is living with dementia becomes more challenging as the disease advances. It is not uncommon for them to comment that a complete stranger is a friend, neighbour or relative. A gentle and calming alternative to consider is to try to meet your loved one where they are. You can support their narrative without being sarcastic or ridiculing them. Engage with them as you would, perhaps, with a young child with an active imagination.

On another occasion, your loved one may show signs of paranoia or let you know that they feel they are in danger. You can help reduce their anxiety by reassuring them that you see the problem and that you’re taking steps to correct the situation. Then, as swiftly and smoothly as you can, shift the conversation to something pleasant. Talk about something you know makes them happy such as family, food, pets or fond memories.

You can make such a positive difference for your loved one and improve the quality of your visit by being flexible and creative. Your words, actions and body language can be incredibly calming and reassuring for someone who is dealing with a failing brain. You will experience a great sense of satisfaction and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you master the art of “Weaving A Beautiful Narrative”!