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Viewpoint: Nurturing relationships key in caring for memory patients

Communicating with a loved one who has Alzheimer's disease or another similar form of dementia can be a bit of a puzzle sometimes. We find that as the disease progresses, it is increasingly difficult to catch and hold their attention. At times, they seem to simply choose to, at best, ignore us, and at worst, become agitated as we try to engage them in conversation. There are steps we can take to increase our success as we work at keeping the communication lines open. Consider following these guidelines in your day to day conversations:

1. Approach from the front with a smile, a verbal hello, greeting them by name, and a hand extended for a handshake or a wave. We all experience visual changes as we age and these changes are more pronounced for those whose brains are changing due to an underlying dementia. Peripheral vision is reduced, creating a kind of "tunnel vision" which gets progressively narrower over time. Approaching from the front and offering verbal cues lets them know that you are trying to get their attention. Calling them by name, as well as offering yours, tells them that you know them and they know you.

2. Focus on social conversation before attempting to assist with a task or talk about something that needs to be done. Social conversation and casual "chit chat" are areas of language which are retained long into the disease process. The cadence and rhythm of social banter is comfortable and will often put them at ease - especially if they have the sense that you are genuinely interested and attending to the conversation. This will backfire if they sense that you are merely "going through the motions" in order to quickly move on to your "ulterior motive".

3. When you are met with resistance or anger, focus on the emotion and the details of what they are saying. It is essential to listen with empathy, trying to understand what may be causing their resistance. We all want to be heard and understood. Investing time in this process will help you to find solutions as you build trust as well as better understand the emotion behind their behavior.

4. If their anger or resistance persists, leave and return a bit later. Often, taking a break will help you both to hit the "reset" button. While their memory is fading, their "emotional memory" remains intact. The longer you continue in a conversation which involves negative emotion, the more likely they will continue to associate that negative emotion with you long after the conversation has ended.

5. Take care to create times of conversation and interaction that are centered on positive emotions to create balance and experience moments of joy. While there is much to accomplish in terms of tasks and physical care, remember to nurture your relationship. Find new ways to spend your time together and to appreciate all that remains as you travel this journey as a care partner.

Johnson is vice president of memory care at Prelude Home & Services - Woodbury