It’s very important to remember that the person who is experiencing dementia may or may not be able to understand that it is their own abilities that are changing, and that even though their cognitive skills are becoming more limited, they are not becoming lesser beings. We can preserve their dignity and sense of equality by partnering with them. We can destigmatize forgetfulness and confusion by treating it as a shared experience.
Ongoing loss of memory and rational thought is unavoidable and incurable (at present) for people with dementia. We can’t change that, but we can make the experience less lonely and more comfortable. We can become teammates rather than superiors.
Be a little forgetful yourself
There’s nothing worse than always being the person in the wrong—the person who loses things and forgets appointments and is confused about what’s going on. We can’t help our loved ones or clients develop a better memory. Reminding them or jogging their memories won’t bring back the skills that dementia is taking away.
Instead, we can make forgetfulness and confusion into something that is a normal part of daily life rather than something that is upsetting. When it’s time to go out, say what you might be thinking internally out loud: “Hmm, now where did I leave my keys? Not in my purse—maybe in the kitchen? I’d better go and look.” When an appointment is overlooked or a deadline missed, rather than being upset and dismayed by the error, react to it with complacency, as a normal part of life. After all, if we’re living or working with someone who has dementia, we do need to accept such mistakes as inevitable and normal.
Blame a third-party
When our loved ones or clients lack rational thought, we can’t expect them to understand our explanations for why they should or shouldn’t do something. Often our clients lose their understanding of hygiene or sanitation. It becomes very difficult to get them to wash their hands or take showers, because understanding that germs can cause sickness or poor hygiene can cause skin issues requires the ability to see cause and effect, as well as sequence or process—rational thought skills they are losing or have already lost.
Instead of attempting to change someone’s behavior with explanations even though they lack the ability to use analysis, change the situation into something you experience together and can commiserate about.
Here, we’re always looking for a distant third party to blame for causing us to do something. We wash our hands with our clients because we don’t want to catch the flu from “strangers” who also use the bathroom. We both get out of the hot tub because “the insurance company” enforces a 15-minute rule. We both take our vitamins or eat our vegetables because we don’t want the doctor to be concerned.
Be a teammate, not a superior or instructor
When someone lacks rational thought, you don’t have to propose entirely logical reasons for doing something. What’s more important is that you and your companion with dementia are both required to do whatever it is, so that you can act as teammates in complying.
When we offer help as an equal and teammate, rather than a superior or instructor, our loved ones dignity and sense of autonomy remain intact. There is no loss of control or hurt feelings.
Destigmatizing forgetfulness and mistakes is a very valuable way to help our loved ones retain a sense of self, despite dementia.