How Do I Interact with a Loved One Who Has Dementia?

By Diane Kane, MD

dementia“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

These words of wisdom are a good reminder that much of what happens in life is beyond our control. Nowhere is this more evident than with dementia, a progressive disease of the brain that produces difficulties with memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive skills.

Dementia occurs when the nerve cells in parts of the brain involved in cognitive function are damaged or destroyed, gradually claiming the person’s ability to perform everyday activities. This slow decline causes feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, fear and boredom for the individual living with the disease.

The one thing that remains is the person’s need for human connection with family and friends.

Seeing someone you love struggle with dementia — whether it is Alzheimer’s disease or another form — may cause you to feel helpless. Your loved one knows that feeling well, too.

It is OK if you don’t know what to do or say when you are around a person with dementia; your presence and friendship are most important to the person. When you meet, do your best not to make a judgment or analyze the individual’s behavior. Instead, start from the heart and offer genuine empathy, patience, and understanding.

Here are a few tips from the Alzheimer’s Association to help you make the most of your time together:

• Stay calm.

Although being called by a different name or not being recognized can be painful, try not to make your hurt apparent.

• Respond with a brief explanation.

Don’t overwhelm the person with long statements or reasons. Instead, clarify with a simple explanation.

• Show photos and other reminders.

Use photographs and other thought-provoking items to remind the person of important relationships and places.

• Travel with the person to where he or she is in time.

If the individual focuses on a particular time in his or her life, engage in conversation about recollections with an understanding that this is his or her current reality.

• Offer corrections as suggestions.

Avoid explanations that sound like scolding. Try: “I thought it was a fork” or, “I believe this girl is your granddaughter Julie.”

• Try not to take it personally.

Dementia causes your loved one to forget, but your support and understanding will continue to be appreciated.

• Reach out for support.

Millions of Americans are in your shoes, so you are not alone. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a wealth of information, support, and resources for families and caregivers. You can contact the Rochester Chapter at 585-760-5400 or visit www.alz.org/rochesterny.

And remember—while you won’t know what your loved one will be like the next time you see them, always be sure to lead with your heart. It will know what to do.

Physician Diane Kane is chief medical officer at St. Ann’s Community. She is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatrics, hospice and palliative medicine and has been involved in senior care for 29 years. Contact her at dkane@stannscommunity.com or visit www.stannscommunity.com.

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