Your school has this relationship with a seniors' residence. When you were a little kid in grades one and two, you used to go over there, and it was okay. You sang with your classmates and showed your drawings and got fed juice and really tasty cookies. Then you all trooped back to school following your teacher like a family of ducklings.
But now...Now you are older, and the school expects you to talk to the seniors and actually do things with them. In the place in your heart that you won't reveal to anyone but yourself, you admit that you are scared. Terrified, actually. Some of them have dementia and you don't know what to say to them. You're afraid of what they might say. Or do.
In a few weeks, we are hosting just such a group of kids. The school within walking distance has a long standing relationship with us. Over the years, we've learned a few things. We are beginning with an orientation, mostly with the kids by themselves, to set some ground rules and teach them the basics of walkers, wheelchairs dementia and communication. For some, it will come naturally to speak respectfully and make eye contact, but others will have to learn.
Below is what I have prepared to teach them about how to communicate with someone with dementia. Although written to kids, there is truth for everyone.
Dementia is a huge umbrella term.
Because “dementia” is a part of so many diseases, it looks a little different for each person. Also, each person has a different background, different life experiences, different health challenges and different medications. Lots of differences!
The point is, because there are so many factors, there is no way to say, “A person with dementia will look like this. This is the way to talk to them.”
Here are some thoughts and suggestions:
1. The person with dementia is a person. Like any other person, they have a personality, and they can feel emotions and enjoy life.
2. Enter into their reality. What does this mean? It means, in their world, “home” might be the place where they grew up, and they think they can go there and see their parents. In their world, they might still have a job, they might be 43 and they might have a cottage up north. Because this is their world, their reality, they might say things like, “I want to go home.” “I have work to do.” “I’m taking a cab and going to my parent’s place.” Don’t panic, and don’t argue. Enter their world by saying things like, “What is your parent’s house like? Where do they live? What kind of a job do you have?” This not only gets them talking, but validates them as a person. It’s not lying, it joining them in their world.
3. Like all people, they have good and not-so-good days. If they aren’t having a good day and seem sleepy, or angry or unresponsive, move on to another person.
4. Avoid distractions. It’s hard for a person with dementia to process information, but if you meet with them one-on-one and maintain eye contact and SMILE, it is often a great experience. If there are a lot of other people in the room talking, or a television or music, they can only process one of these things at a time.
5. Talk about one thing at a time. Same as above, their minds move slower than yours, but they do move.
6. Share yourself. They love to hear what sport you are playing or where you went on vacation (and what you thought of it.) Ask their opinion of things. They have lots of opinions!
7. Speak clearly and naturally. Remember these are adults, and never talk down to them (as in “good girl!” or the like.)
8. Identify yourself.” Hi, Mrs. E., I’m Sheryl. We had fun talking together a few weeks ago, so I came back to visit you again.”
9. Listen. Even if you have no clue what they are talking about, listen and nod, smile and respond. (“Uh-huh.” with an interested look works fine.)
10. Have patience. You might hear the same story several times, or have to answer the same question over and over. Listen and answer as if it was the first time.
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