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Dementia and the Conversation

by Judy Cornish

How do I help someone with dementia take part in conversations successfully? There are several easy techniques to help our loved ones and clients avoid embarrassment, join in conversations, and feel a part of the group.

Be the supplier of fact

You can start by cheerfully stating the obvious. Have you ever thought about how much information we assume our listeners already know when we converse? If I were to bump into friends in the grocery store, they might ask me: “How’d that go last Friday?” or “When does Jean get home?” Or if I go into the bank with a question about an account, the teller might say: “Yes, that information will be on your statement.”

People with dementia are becoming ever less able to recall facts or events and may have forgotten the meaning of words such as “account.” So statements like those above leave them bewildered and unable to continue without asking questions about things that sound obvious to those of us with healthy brains. When you are with someone who has dementia, be sure to state and restate any necessary background facts—cheerfully.

Focus on the present

Sometimes we’re alone with a loved one or client and want to enjoy a companionable conversation. Start by choosing topics from what’s there in the present. Avoid bringing up past or future events, which require memory and rational thought. Look around you. Anything you can see, hear, taste, or touch is good subject matter. People with dementia are still able to enjoy sensory information through their intuitive thought processes. So turn to what is nearby for subject matter.

Become a spectator

Sitting in a café or restaurant, park or shopping mall, will provide a constantly changing array of people to watch. People, children, and pets are wonderful entertainment. Several years ago I had a client who could not get over the price of clothing, especially for jeans with holes in them. It tickled her no end to chuckle with me at the Starbucks in the mall as the students wandered by in their trendy outfits, or to browse price tags on new clothing in the shops.

Encourage favorite anecdotes

We all have stories or jokes we love to tell. For some reason, certain anecdotes just make us feel good. Have you ever caught yourself repeating one to the same person? Why is it embarrassing when we do it and irritating when someone else does it?

But people experiencing dementia can’t help repeating themselves. So instead of feeling frustrated and bored when your loved one or client launches into that same old tale, set up the conversation to take them there on purpose. Hear it and pretend you’ve never heard it before. Think of enjoying their story or joke as a gift you can give them.

Introduce forgotten memories

It’s unkind to put someone on the spot and ask them to use memory skills they are losing or have already lost. But it’s a great kindness to recall for them the memories you know they were once loved and drew enjoyment from. So be their story teller. Tell them their memories like bedtime stories.

The best part about spending time with someone who has dementia and using these DAWN techniques is that it is refreshing. It requires us to use our own intuitive thought processes, giving us a rare break from the constant use of rational thought required to navigate daily life.

So enjoy yourself. Look for beauty and stimulation. It will enhance your own sense of well-being as well as your companion’s.


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