Caregivers know that it can be difficult to hear the same stories over and over when a family member or a client has dementia. You get so you can tell the story yourself. Trying to redirect a person with dementia from repeated reminiscences is often unsuccessful, and may upset them or cause them to withdraw.
Social engagement, and conversation in particular, is vital because it exercises many different parts of the brain simultaneously and may even slow the rate of decline if dementia is present. Social engagement also helps a person feel as if they still belong and can contribute – essential human needs which don’t diminish with age or with dementia.
If repeated reminiscences are to be encouraged, what can dementia caregivers do in order to make these exchanges as enjoyable for themselves as they are for the story teller?
- Re-orient your thinking. Instead of hearing “the same old stories” you are receiving clues about what is important to the person with dementia – people, places, events, and values. These reminiscences are the artifacts of the person’s life. The narratives are often about important events – usually positive – that define their identity.
- Remember that short-term recall is one of the first symptoms of dementia. It is much harder for a person to remember and talk about things that happened yesterday than it is to talk about things that happened decades ago. The repeated narratives are often the only content on which a person with dementia can speak with authority.
- Focus on the emotions driving the story. You may have heard the facts over and over, but what was it like to live through that experience? In dementia, the emotional center of the brain gradually takes over other cognitive functions. By digging in to the emotions, you help to validate their humanity.
- Lean in. Channel your innate curiosity. If your loved one or client tells you about the beat up convertible they bought and restored with the money they earned after school as a teen ager, ask what it felt like to drive with the top down on a beautiful spring day. If necessary, use prompts like, “It must have felt so exhilarating to feel the wind rush through your hair.”
- Expand the narrative. Ask for details, or supply them, rather than change the subject. “Where was your favorite place to go in that car?” “Who did you like to drive around with?” “Did you ever take that car someplace your parents forbid you to go? What did it feel like to sneak out like that?” Your client or loved one may or may not remember the answer to these questions, but you might be surprised. Also, if you have not started these questions with “Do you remember…” you lower the stakes for them, since you haven’t directly asked them to remember. Now, you are providing the conversation that your loved one or client sought to begin with.
Experiment with these tips, and notice whether this new approach helps you get more enjoyment out of repeated reminiscences AND whether it helps the person in your care feel more content during those conversations.
This article has a sister post – you can read it here.
For more information and advice on dementia caregiving, check out The Dementia Field Guide, a self-paced manual for dementia caregivers.