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How To Connect with Dementia Patients

Dementia patient

Dementia patients can feel isolated and alone, especially as the disease progresses. There are ways to improve their means of communication, maintaining their vital connection to the world. One way is through video messaging; the creation of thoughtful and personalized messages presented to the individual for whom the spoken word or single picture may not be easily and completely interpreted. In this article, we discuss how healthcare professionals and family and friends are using video messages to potentially breakthrough some of these communication deficits. As you consider this information, you may obtain your first direction toward making a family video message for your loved one.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a disease that causes cognitive decline and memory loss. As the disease progresses, patients can often become isolated and lonely because they have difficulty communicating and understanding what is going on around them. There are ways to connect with dementia patients.

Two elderly people with memory loss

How does dementia affect communication skills?

Dementia affects a person's ability to communicate in many ways. The individual may have trouble understanding what others are saying; the interpretation of complex or even simple words becomes a struggle. The individual's response may not seem to make sense. Remember that these losses are not on a steady pace. Today your loved one may enjoy a nice chat, sharing real thoughts and realistic ideas. Then, perhaps only an hour later or the next day, she may tell you a story which could only be interpreted as a dream. Perhaps she may not respond much at all to your spoken words. Then, the next day, she may enjoy more time chatting. As the disease progresses, patients may lose the ability to speak altogether and have difficulty reading and writing.

Why does dementia make it difficult to communicate?

Inside the brain

Whether your loved one has Alzheimer's disease, or a different form of dementia, there is no doubt the disease affects every part of their lives, and your lives, together. Ultimately their brain cells are struggling to make and keep connections, causing changes in the way they think, feel and behave. This can make communication difficult, as the ability to understand, remember and express themselves is affected. There are many signs you may see that someone with dementia is having difficulty communicating. These include:

  1. Finding it hard to remember the right word for things
  2. Trouble understanding what you're saying
  3. Difficulty putting their thoughts into words
  4. Frustrated or agitated if they can't communicate properly

The importance of the human connection

Human connection is important for everyone. Regardless of our circumstances, humans crave and benefit from socialization. Being and feeling connected to others offers social and emotional support, can help reduce anxiety, and simply brings lively, playful times. When the situation changes, and we become physically isolated, including moving to a care facility, our choices for social connections change dramatically. When our physical ability decline, such as within the disease process of dementia, this too will have an impact on our ability to communicate. Not only will our choices for social connection change, but our ability to benefit from the experiences will weaken.

Heirloom memories and keepsakes

Why is human connection important for dementia patients?

Human connection is important for all of us, but it can be especially crucial for those living with dementia. Dementia can be a very isolating and lonely experience. The individual suffers from a decline in their ability to understand and reply to messages, demonstrated over many years, at various rates and intensities. Providing repeated, gentle and familiar human connection, we can make a big difference in the lives of these sufferers.

How can human connections directly benefit a dementia patient?

Scientists, clinicians and family members seem to be increasingly aware of the value of social interaction for those struggling with cognitive decline. One study found that people with Alzheimer’s who had regular visitors had a significantly slower rate of decline than those who did not. Beyond that, you may be helping them to live a longer, healthier life! Research shows that social interaction and companionship can help to improve the health of those with dementia.

Direct positive benefits of human connection include its ability to help reduce anxiety by providing a sense of support and companionship. Connections, in the form of conversations, can sustain or improve their good listening skills by providing an opportunity for patients to express themselves and connect with others. Connections can provide social and emotional support to help patients cope with the challenges of dementia.

What are some ways to connect with someone living with dementia?

You can have a conversation, using some of the verbal and nonverbal suggestions detailed below. Additionally, creating video messages can be a beneficial tool to maintain your connection with those struggling to understand basic conversations. You can offer to play games together, knowing first their current level of cognitive function. Consider card games that they may have had a demonstrated skill and enjoyment for in prior years. Offering to work on a table puzzle may also provide a moment of shared fun, not challenging their verbal skills beyond chats about the pieces being assembled. Take the time to connect with them on a regular basis. It can make a world of difference in their life.

What is verbal communication?

Verbal communication is the use of words to exchange information between people. The spoken word requires a high level of mental function. We need to be able to hear and interpret the speech presented, comprehend the words, place the concepts within our thoughts and create a verbal response. People have difficulty communicating for a variety of reasons, such as a hearing impairment or brain damage causing the loss of understanding or expressing speech.

What are some challenges to full functioning verbal communication?

Aphasia is an inability to produce or comprehend language due to damage to the language centers of the brain. Aphasia can be caused by a stroke, head injury, or other brain damage. People with aphasia may have difficulty speaking, understanding speech, reading, or writing.

People with hearing impairments may benefit from hearing aids or cochlear implants. Hearing aids amplify sound so that people with hearing impairments can hear better. Cochlear implants are devices that are surgically implanted into the ear and provide a direct electrical stimulation to the auditory nerve.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is communication that does not use words. It includes body language, such as facial expressions and gestures, and can also include the use the environment, touch, and eye contact. Nonverbal communication can be used to communicate feelings, emotions, or ideas.

Group speaking

Why is nonverbal communication Important?

Visual cues are combinations of what we see and how we relate them to known information. Our nonverbal communication may be as important in your goal of effectively communicate as understanding any spoken word could be. Nonverbal communication includes the interpretation of our body language, ranging from eye movements, the use of facial muscles such as in creating a smile, and our hand gestures.

What can you expect when talking with a dementia patient?

When speaking with a dementia patient you can expect them to use simple words, and for them to struggle to convey meaning. Remember that there are many ways to communicate with a person, not just speaking. Real communication can be had with something as simple as holding their hand. This gesture may provide much needed comfort. The individual who is feeling overwhelmed and struggling to communicate their challenges will know you understand. If you are struggling to communicate with someone with dementia, there are many resources available. The Alzheimer's Association offers excellent information on effective communication strategies.

What are some tips when trying to communicate with a dementia patient?

Consider some of these tips when trying to have a conversation with a person who suffers from dementia.

  1. Learn from their caregivers what their current state of understanding and communication appears to be.
  2. Remember topics and areas of interest that you shared with him before this diagnosis.
  3. Consider beginning with a simple activity, such as an art project. The individual may enjoy the activity and relax to a point that some communication can occur.
  4. Discuss past memories of events and individuals that brought them joy. Even after the short term memory is in decline, older memories may still have meaning.
  5. Avoid arguing. It is often impossible to 'convince' them of a reality they don't understand. Encourage them to focus on positive memories or activities they enjoy.
  6. Don't correct mistakes, unless you believe it is critical to their safety.
  7. It can be helpful to maintain eye contact, and to use positive nonverbal cues like nodding and smiling. Reduce background distractions because those visual and auditory cues can make it hard to focus on your conversation.
  8. Remember, the person with dementia is still the same person they were before their diagnosis. By showing patience, compassion and understanding, you can help make their journey a little bit easier.
  9. Incorporate your surroundings as you communicate. You may find, for example, that holding props known to be familiar to your loved one can further your connection. She may have knitted you a blanket or painted a picture. You can reference this as you share pleasant memories.

What is video messaging?

Video messaging are those conversations and expressions conducted utilizing technology to play live or record and replay. These can be as simple as a live telephone call, often referred to as a FaceTime chat. Both parties are holding a device, either a phone or computer, and utilizing one of several software programs to simultaneously view and hear their speaking partner. Additionally, a video message can be one that is pre-recorded and sent to the individual for future viewing. These messages are often created using a smartphone or computer software program. The completed message, or video show, is then saved and transferred to another device or program for future viewing.

Heirloom Video Books

Woman holding video book

This new product can be utilized for video messaging with dementia patients. Heirloom video books provides the instructions and customer service to transfer your video message to a hand-held book, easily opened and viewed by your recipient. No technology, such as a wi-fi connection, is required. No tech skills are needed. The recipient simply opens the cover and your video messages begin to play. Imagine the comfort he or she might obtain from viewing your loving, caring and helpful message, conveniently ready for daily viewing.

Amazon Echo with Alexa voice

Resident facilities may offer support for their dementia patients to access new technology. One example of such devices is the Amazon Echo linked to the Alexa voice assistant. Many people find great value in this device for their everyday questions and replies. Alexa offers music, audiobooks and timely news. It may be possible for your loved one to obtain comfort from this programming. While such technology lacks the human touch and personalized conversation, they may be attentive to these intelligent voices.

How can video messages help with dementia?

Video messaging can help dementia patients stay connected to their loved ones as they view, hear and possibly recognize familiar people, voices, places and things. Video messages also help patients maintain the vital connection with the outside world by providing a window into what's going on around them. Additionally, these messages are personalized, expressing the love and concern that exists for their health and well-being.

Group gathered at the table

What are some advantages of creating a video message?

As you consider ways to create meaningful human connections with your loved one who suffers from dementia, look toward your tech devices and consider your recipient's limitations. You can create a single message or gather together messages from many other loved ones. Healthcare providers may also suggest content to include in your video messages. You may remind him or her that their nurse will be giving them medication that is beneficial, safe and good for them. You may want to encourage him or her to assist with their morning dressing activities. Meal times may be mentioned along with the importance to try the food offerings which provide nourishment needed to feel well. Some specific advantages of messaging by video, rather than by an audio phone call only or a printed picture, include:

Increased means of connection

Offering increased means of connection means that your viewer will not only hear your spoken voice but he will simultaneously associate your voice with your known image, your surroundings and your nonverbal communication movements. Often the dementia patient may see these cues and be able to remember their importance from their distant past. For example, is you are offering a view at your environment on a live visual phone call, the viewer may remember your home setting.

Increased personal connection

A video message can provide a more personal connection than a phone call. The viewer can see the face of the person sending the message, which can help to make them feel more connected. It can provide a way for them to see and hear loved ones, even when they can't be there in person.

Ease of replaying the message

Your loved one can easily and frequently replay the message, in its exact form. For those suffering from the effects of dementia, the opportunity to repeatedly view, hear and experience the message can create greater awareness, alertness and possibly understanding. This is helpful because dementia patients may not be able to remember a past conversation. Looking at a still picture can be quite joyous yet it lacks certain features; most notably the spoken voice and physical action. These additional elements of input can assist the challenged mind.

Ease of sharing the message with others

Having a video message that can be easily accessed will also provide an informative means to share your loved ones' experiences. Sharing the exact video message with other family members, friendly visitors and caregivers can provide a precise means of knowing what your loved one has viewed. This is helpful information when we are trying to consider if our loved one is relaying accurate information or living more in a confused, dream-like world.

Accurate messaging

Creating a video message may also result in accurately delivered specific information. You can create a video message with instructions on when and how to take their medication. You can learn and demonstrate helpful exercises and remind your loved one of safety measures to avoid injury. Perhaps, more simply, these family messages can reassure the individual that their family remains in their lives and continues to provide the same comfort, joy and love that is so familiar.

Ease of interpretation

Dementia patients often benefit emotionally from seeing and hearing the voices of their loved ones. When their ability to understand diminish, the benefits are also lost to them. Nonverbal communication is vital to create a meaningful conversation. Video messages provide an opportunity for the use of extensive communication techniques, building the connection that can help to reduce feelings of isolation, fear and loneliness. Additionally, levels of anxiety and confusion may decrease with repeated visits from loved ones, whether in-person or through video messaging.

Basic tips for communicating with a dementia patient

As long as you have known your loved one you have been able to communicate effectively. Now, with their mental abilities diminishing, you need to learn new techniques to try and obtain the best possible connection. Her current state of attention and ability may not remain constant, and perhaps only some of these techniques will prove beneficial as her condition, environment, and even medication are altered. See what works for the moment, remaining flexible and optimistic. You are seeking a valued experience for you both as you offer your time, attention and unconditional love.

Use short, simple sentences

Short sentences require less time and often limited mental skills to understand. Your loved one may not need much extra time and attention to focus on your statements and formulate their response.

Speak slowly and clearly

If you find yourself struggling to be understood, be sure you are not simply raising your voice volume. The challenge is to speak each word slow enough for all the syllables to be heard. Try to avoid speaking where there are other noises around. Check that the television is off, others are not speaking nearby and that outside noises are not creating an auditory distraction.

Allow time for understanding

You will honor your family member by providing time and patience during the conversation. Listen closely to the spoken words for helpful clues to their level of understanding. When you listen you are not speaking and the individual is not being asked to focus on new words and ideas. The time you listen is the time they can think.

Repeat yourself, if necessary

Once you have spoken, consider repeating the words for emphasize. You might also try to restate yourself using other words to enhance the understanding.

Ask simple questions

Avoid asking questions that may require a long answer and, perhaps, complex ideas. Instead, ask a question that requires only a few word answer. Yes-and-no questions may not provide you with the information you seek or demonstrate her difficulty to understand.

Focus on nonverbal communication cues

Nonverbal communication, as noted above, provide a significant amount of information to the recipient. Studies have found that up to 80% of our communication is shared by nonverbal means. Our facial expressions, including smiles and frowns, offer a lot of information. You can learn a lot about your loved one's state of comfort, confusion, and even energy level through their nonverbal communication. Watch your video message without the sound to consider if your viewer will gain the message you intend. Do you convey enthusiasm and happiness through your nonverbal communication cues? Do you use nonverbal movements to reinforce your spoken message and not present cues that are in conflict with your words?

Pay attention to eye movements

Our eye movements are also very useful sources of shared understanding. The eyes can convey such important information that it is suggested we place ourselves at equal eye level with our recipient. When in person, consider a chair or, if necessary, even sit on the side of their bed. When presenting your message by video, ask their assistant to adjust the screen to view as directly as possible.

The importance of facial expressions and body language

Try to stay positive and upbeat, even if your loved one is showing some stress. Your personal expressions will surly be recorded in your body language. The key purpose of your time together is quality human connection. Keep your body gestures to a minimum to avoid creating distractions. Strive to keep your facial expressions as positive or neutral as possible. You can use your expressions to emphasize or even interpret your spoke words. For example, when expressing a happy story smile pleasantly. When expressing something funny, you can even use your hands to overly express your excitement.

Accepting responses

Your loved one may have good days and bad days. During a good day, you may think the conversation was beneficial. During a bad day, you may think that the conversation was stressful. Pick different topics that create easier responses. If the conversation is going well, try to keep it going. You may have found a good day with an alert level that is helpful. Consider adding new topics to your conversation that both you and your loved one can enjoy.

Be prepared for long pauses in conversation

Do not always feel that you have to fill every moment with words, with conversation. Pauses, even ones that last several minutes, can provide the needed rest to continue. These conversations may be challenging and your loved one needs quiet, restful moments.

When the conversation is over, express appreciation and thankfulness

Simple gestures of kindness and respect can convey messages of the importance of your relationship. The conversation is now over. Let the person know that you are there for them and that you value their time.

We simply do not know everything about dementia and its affects on communication. We do know that making these efforts, and learning about some of the differences in communication abilities, will support your loved one and improve your interpersonal experience. Creating these video messages can be a priceless gift for the families who send them knowing their loved one is comforted.