Try the Phone.
Maintaining some semblance of personal connection with your loved one with dementia is vitally important. Witnessing their descent into the memory waning abyss, less aware, less themselves, less communicative is heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, language is often the first area to be affected by Alzheimer’s. Grappling to recall current events, names, places, details is an increasing struggle with decreasing success.
Through my memoir I Will Never Forget, I admit to every communication mistake.
When I tried to convince my mother that no one was stealing from her, she rebuffed me.
When I tried to discover why her clothes were dirty after decades of meticulousness, she was vague.
When I wanted to affirm Mom still knew me pleading “What’s my name?” she was silent and I was crushed.
I share all of these examples and more at my presentations; I also offer communication strategies in lieu of words. To site a few examples: Touch more; talk less. Smile more; talk less. Speak clearly but talk less.
Got the idea? More non-verbal communication and less words. And when you do talk, supplement what you’re saying with appropriate gestures.
At the conclusion of my talk I encourage and appreciate the real-life experiences that the audience shares.
Just a phone call away.
Consider this true story:
Dorothy’s father Peter was steadily declining from dementia. Because Dorothy lived several hours away, it was difficult to visit but she called her dad frequently. Over the phone, she felt he seemed reasonably intact showing just a slow regression. He could carry on a relatively coherent reciprocal, albeit brief, conversation. And just like when she was little, he called her Dot. Her brothers, Bill and John, who lived closer however, disagreed and thought Dorothy was in denial.
When Dorothy was finally able to come home and see her dad in person, she was taken aback by his obvious decline. Visually he could not place her although he seemed aware of his sons, her brothers.
She tried to ‘jog his memory’ with stimuli intended to trigger recent phone conversations.
“Dad, it’s me, Dorothy. Dot. We talked on the phone the other day about the red car I use to drive. Don’t you remember?”
Peter’s face, remarks and actions suggested he didn’t in fact ‘remember’.
Needless to say, Dorothy was very disappointed and a bit perplexed as to why her dad seemed so much better over the phone than in person. Her brothers sited Dorothy’s likely overly optimistic perception of their phone conversations. But Dorothy wasn’t convinced.
The next day she and John visited Peter. John walked in the room first but Dorothy intentionally lagged behind in the hall. A little befuddled, John was just about to beckon Dorothy when the phone rang. Peter picked it up, said “Hello” and smiled. “Hi Dot. I’m glad you called. John’s here.”
Now attending to both conversations, John could distinctly hear his dad’s and much of Dorothy’s exchange to know they indeed were interacting better via the phone than in person.
John was apologetic. Dorothy was relieved. I was skeptical.
I was suspicious at first when I heard Dorothy’s account until I thought about the neuro-complexities of the human brain. Although it wouldn’t apply to everyone, in this case Peter and Dot had maintained an auditory only relationship for so long, he was more in the moment via phone. Her voice had been a constant, but her face was less familiar. By contrast Peter was accustomed to seeing John and Bill’s faces and chatting with them over the phone might not have gone well.