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Holiday togetherness: Taking down the communication barriers of dementia

By: Karen Ellexson, Positive Approach to Care (PAC) certified Independent advanced consultant and trainer, Richfield Living & Sapphire Dementia Partners

The best holiday gift is the presence of family. But this time of togetherness can bring to light many behavioral changes. Some families may notice that an older loved one is acting…. different. Holiday events and traditions in a loved one’s home might alert you to what the Alzheimer’s Association outlines as the 10 warning signs of dementia. These include memory loss that disrupts daily life, planning and critical thinking challenges, confusion with time or place, and new problems with speaking or writing. Family gatherings may suddenly seem strenuous and unfamiliar for the person experiencing these challenges.
When we talk about dementia, we tend to talk about it as somebody losing their memories or becoming forgetful, and it’s a much deeper process than that. Dementia is a complex, progressive, chronic, terminal disease. Essentially, it is the neurodegeneration of the brain. It controls your breathing rate, heart rate, and ability to speak, move, and interact with your world.

Unfortunately, even healthcare professionals are missing a lot of education around dementia. There’s limited training about how to interact with somebody whose ability to communicate is changing. For dementia patients to receive the best care and quality of life possible there must be more awareness and continuing education, for all of us, about the disease.

At Richfield Living, every employee spends two hours with me in orientation to get an overview of how dementia changes the brain and learning about the visual, spatial, and verbal boundaries that appear with those changes. Simple things you can do to engage your loved one, include:

  • Approach someone from the front. People living with dementia experience limited field of vision and can startle easily. To engage, stop about six feet away and say their name. Offer your hand, but do not move into their space or touch them without permission. We often make mistakes with good intentions and entered someone’s personal space before they are aware or prepared to see us there.
  • Limit your words. In- early-stage dementia, people can miss one out of every four words that you say. Be more specific and provide visual cues whenever possible to give someone a better chance of understanding. If I was going to offer you something to drink, I could hold up a coffee cup and a water cup and say, “Would you like something hot or cold?” That’s an easier choice to make.

Positive interactions can flourish between people with dementia, their loved ones and their healthcare providers if we take the time to become educated, an initiative we take seriously at Richfield.

Furthermore, dementia patients deserve to be an active part of our communities and maintain their dignity which comes from keeping younger generations informed and involved. A local high school football team recently visited our residents, a great example of the connection we all need to feel like we’re important and to know our lives have purpose.

It is up to our entire community to help those experiencing dementia to continue to have lives with meaningful interactions.

The disease process is the disease process, but you still have more time to experience joy.