Helping someone with dementia recognize and interact with you
During the COVID pandemic, recognizing a friend, co-worker, or neighbor wearing a mask has been challenging. While a person’s eyes give us some clues to the person’s identity, it often isn’t enough. We don’t have the benefit of seeing a person’s mouth and facial expressions. And masks often muffle our voices, making it harder to hear and understand.
This is especially true for people with dementia. Laurie has a friend, James, whom she met shortly after his diagnosis five years ago. They would talk, laugh and converse weekly about many things including his diagnosis. During the pandemic, Laurie didn’t see James for the better part of a year. She kept in touch with his wife, who said that while James’ dementia had progressed, he was pretty much his same old self.
When finally Laurie visited James, she wore a mask, as requested. She was excited and nervous to see James, as she wasn’t sure he would recognize her. He didn’t. When his wife said, “James, you remember Laurie, right?” James looked at Laurie quickly, shaking his head no. When she took off her mask and said his name, he recognized her immediately, gave her a hug and they talked for a short time.
This experience reminded us of the importance of giving a person with dementia every chance we can to recognize and interact with us. This becomes harder in the later stages of dementia, but we believe that we never know when a person might recognize us. Keeping these points in mind may help you and your relative or those who work with your relative.
- Whenever it is safe and allowed, remove masks, so that you can see each other’s entire face.
- When you approach someone with dementia, move and talk slowly. People with dementia need more time to process who you are and what you are saying and doing.
- Start by saying the person’s name and then introduce yourself. “James”. PAUSE. “It is Laurie.” PAUSE. “I am so happy to see you.”
- Keep the conversation short. Use simple phrases, especially if your relative or friend is in the later stages.
- Maintain eye contact as much as possible. This often makes the person more comfortable. Try to be at their eye level, rather than above or below. In some cultures, it is rude to maintain eye contact. If this is true in your culture, be sure you educate those who interact with your relative about this.
- Recognize signs that your relative is becoming tired or agitated: wringing hands, facial grimaces, restlessness. If this happens, you might try involving your relative in another activity such as walking in the garden, having a snack, or just sitting together quietly.
As people with dementia become non-verbal, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand what you are saying. Some people with dementia will understand what others are saying long after they have lost the ability to speak. You can find many pointers for talking with your relative with dementia in our book Coping with Behavior Change in Dementia: A Family Caregiver’s Guide, which equips you to address communication challenges throughout the stages of dementia.
Laurie White and Beth Spencer, Dementia Care Books