Communication Important For People With Dementia

Otterbein Dementia Coordinator Yvonne Miller explained the three stages of dementia on Tuesday evening. She spoke on the importance of communication when caring for a loved one with memory loss.
Assistant Editor

Receiving a diagnosis of dementia is a challenge and interacting with that patient going forward presents its own challenges. On Tuesday evening, community members and residents of Otterbein St. Marys got some tips, tricks and education on how best to communicate with a loved one whose memory is failing.

During an hourlong presentation, Otterbein’s Life Enrichment and Dementia Coordinator Yvonne Miller spoke on the important things to keep in mind when a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia.

“A lot of people think memory loss is a normal part of aging,” Miller said. “Slower memory is normal but losing parts of your memory is not.”

She used computers as an analogy for the normal process of aging, noting that as a computer fills up with files — pictures, documents, dates, facts — it slows down but still works. The same can be said for the human brain but with dementia, whole sections of memory are no longer accessible. 

To make it easier to understand what stage of memory loss — how much memory has been deleted — a person is at, Miller broke the disease into three phases of early, middle and late.

During the early stages she said the patient can still communicate rather well and make some decisions on their own

“In early stage, communication can convey thoughts and feelings through language; they can still talk to you, do pretty well with that and they’re able to make decisions about their future,” she said. “A lot of times when somebody goes to the doctor's office and they say you have early stage dementia. Alzheimer's all of the sudden the family says, ‘I'm POA and I'm making all the decisions.’ Do not ever do that; never do that."

Allowing the patient to make important decisions such as who to designate as their power of attorney (POA), what they want to do with their finances and discussing wishes for care going forward including end-of-life care.

One of the main things family members may notice when a loved one is in the early stages of dementia may misinterpret what other people say and can take things the wrong way because they get a little confused but for the most part, the patient is still able to be a functional member of the family.

By the time the middle stage arrives, things get a little harder.

Miller said it’s not uncommon for words to get mixed up as the disease continues to eat away at a person’s memory.

She advised patience above all else and keeping a positive attitude when around the person with the disease. She said people with dementia like to be around happy people and they feel and mimic the feelings of people in the room. 

She suggested when emotions are getting too strong, taking a deep breath and walking away for a moment to gather thoughts and calm down to keep calm energy in the room.

She also encouraged caretakers to allow the patient to continue to do the things that made them happy in the past.

“If somebody liked to garden and they have middle stage dementia, should we take their hoe away and say ‘you can do that, you have dementia,’” Miller said. “Allow them to do it; maybe it's not the best way, maybe it's not the way they always did it or the way you want it to them to do it but it's meaningful to them.”

As the disease continues to progress toward the later, final stages, more things become difficult for the patient. Miller said it's common for names of loved ones to be forgotten completely. While she said names can become shakey or switched during the middle stages, by the time the patient reaches the late stage, the patient may not have any idea who they are talking to but they do recognize this is someone who loves them.

At this point, Miller said it’s important to introduce yourself when talking to a person with dementia rather than asking them who you are.

Above all, Miller reminded the roughly 50 people gathered in the room that patience is the key. She said it’s OK to struggle and it’s OK to have a bad day sometimes but she encouraged approaching a loved one with nothing but patience, compassion and empathy.

Those interested in receiving caregiver support for a family member can attend support groups at Otterbein — St. Marys at 1 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Miller can be contacted by calling 419-394-6282.