All of us are capable of love and happiness on our own terms. Those terms may change with time and ability, but the capability remains. This is especially true with our loved ones living with dementia.
While the terms may change from the early to late stages of dementia (and with different types of Alzheimer’s and dementia), a dear and loving soul remains within our loved ones. Even when memory fades and the ability to speak is lost, it is still important to honor their humanity and, just as importantly, their inner soul.
You can do so by communicating well and focusing on your loved one’s strengths. (Remember: focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t empowers them for a life worth living for many years into a diagnosis.)
How to Honor the ‘Inner Soul’ of Persons Living with Dementia
As you may well know (or will soon experience), that “inner soul” may seem nowhere to be found as your loved one’s dementia grows progressively worse. As we’ve often said, dementia is a thief. And it’s almost always more than memory loss alone. From aggression to hallucinations to wandering, common Alzheimer’s and dementia behaviors and symptoms can make you feel as if they’re no longer the same person anymore.
But make no mistake, your loved one is in there somewhere — craving love, attention and understanding just like anyone else. Here are some helpful things to consider.
1. Communication is Important
Communication is the most obvious (and essential) way people connect. Dementia doesn’t change this. You may think your loved one has lost the ability to communicate, but trust me, they still have plenty to say. We just have to pay attention to both the verbal and non-verbal ways they like to connect.
Carrying on a spoken conversation may not be too problematic during the early to mid-stages of dementia. We can connect to our loved one by the words we say and by truly hearing the words they say to us.
It’s important that you continue to speak to your loved one with love, even as their ability to communicate verbally declines. Don’t talk down to them or use baby talk. They are adults that deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Speak clearly and in a friendly and calm way. Keep the conversation simple and limited to one topic at a time. Make sure you really listen to what your loved one is saying to you. Don’t dismiss or correct what they say.
Listening well can help you assess where (and when) your loved one is at mentally. Your mother may be a former teacher who tells stories (sometimes repetitively) about what happened in her classroom as it just happened earlier that day. Listen to her stories with just as much interest and enthusiasm as back in the day. Connect with her current reality — because it is her reality.
Verbal communication may disappear as dementia progresses. This doesn’t mean your loved one is done communicating, though.
Watch their eyes and facial expressions, as well as the gestures and sounds they make. These will give you a variety of clues as to what they want to tell you. A grimace while eating may mean the food is too hot. A gesture out a window could indicate they want to take a walk.
Also, just because your loved one living with dementia can’t speak to you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak to them. Continue to talk as you normally would. Tell stories. Share memories. Watch for non-verbal cues so you can tell if you are connecting to the soul of your loved one.
2. Amplify Their Strengths
It may be easy for us to focus on the things dementia has taken away, but as my life partner/care partner, Brian, always says, “I have Alzheimer’s, but Alzheimer’s doesn’t have me.” Your loved one still has strengths on which to focus, regardless of the common regressions with time.
Your loved one has a long-term memory bank with a treasure trove of stories. Encourage them to tell a story about their childhood. Ask them about their career or what it was like to raise their children. Bring out the family photo album to help jog their memory.
Appeal to the Senses
Familiar sounds, smells and touches can help people to connect deeply. The laughter of children can remind a loved one of when their children were young. The smell of a certain cologne or perfume can bring up memories of a spouse. The feel of yarn can remind a knitter of their favorite hobby.
Music lives deep within many of us. A certain song can trigger memories from years past. In fact, studies show music can provide numerous emotional and behavioral benefits to persons living with dementia.
Play your loved-one’s favorite music. Even those in the late stages of dementia connect to music. It speaks to their soul and can arouse a variety of emotions and expressions. (It’s even been shown to temporarily restore speaking abilities for non-verbal individuals.)
For many of us, spiritual practices become part of who we are. Religious practices, regardless of faith or denomination, become hardwired in our souls and can be recalled by people in even advanced stages of dementia.
Reading scripture, reciting prayers and singing spiritual songs can invigorate the spirit of our loved ones living with dementia. A long-time Christian with advanced dementia may flash a smile at Psalm 23, try to pray the Lord’s Prayer with you, or even tear up at the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.”
3. Be Creative
Your loved one will continue to need love and connection as dementia progresses. Don’t be afraid to be creative in how you connect with them. Think outside the box. Experiment with stimuli that may jog their memory or evoke a positive emotional response. Even putting up some old pictures around the home or in their room may be more meaningful than words could express.
Are You Ready for a Deeper Connection with a Loved One Living with Dementia?
Do you want to make sure you are connecting to the inner soul of a loved one with dementia? Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC, can help you foster relationships when having an emotional impact seems most difficult.
We have over 25 years of experience with all aspects of life-care planning and can help you and your loved one build a plan that honors everyone’s wishes and needs. We’re happy to provide referrals and guide the process in a caring and compassionate way.