Dementia Action Week takes place on 20-26 May and is a campaign by Alzheimer’s Society to show that everyone can take action by starting a conversation with a person living with dementia. I have to be honest. I’m not big on ‘health days’ and awareness weeks in general, as I tend to feel they can be a bit contrived. What carers want and need is practical help and support, not a PR campaign that tells people to be more understanding about dementia. We all know we need to show understanding and empathy, but as carers, what we really want is support and insight into how to best care for a loved one.
However, on this occasion, I can see the value in Dementia Action Week if it’s there to encourage conversation and interaction with a person with dementia. I once spoke to a man with Alzheimer’s about how people interacted with him and how they responded to the prospect of having a conversation with him when they knew he had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His response was interesting. He told me that if he and his wife went out for dinner with friends, or to a social occasion, people who knew that he had dementia would address his wife and not him. They would assume he couldn’t interact with the conversation, or maybe they weren’t making this assumption… perhaps they felt awkward and didn’t know how to speak to him or what to say. This man was in the early stages of his diagnosis and was still able to hold a good conversation and articulate his thoughts and feelings fairly well. All he wanted was to be treated the same as everyone else. The only thing he struggled with was answering a question as quickly as he would have done in the past. If you didn’t know he had a dementia diagnosis, you would never have suspected anything was wrong.
Over almost a decade of taking care of my mum, I came to realise how important social interaction is for a person with dementia. It can bring them back from their own world and into reality, if only for a short period of time. My mum was definitely more alert and focused at the end of my visits compared to when I first arrived. When I first arrived at her house, she would seem vague and distracted. An hour or two later, after we’d had a good conversation, she would be much brighter, and much happier too. Even though I knew she probably wouldn’t remember the conversations we’d had – or even the fact that I’d been to visit – I knew it was beneficial to her. If she was left on her own for too long, she just seemed to drift away into her own world. It just wasn’t healthy.
If you’re not sure how to have a good conversation with a person with dementia, and I appreciate it can be tough if they are in the mid or later stages, try talking to them about general things. Don’t ask what they’ve done that day or what they’ve had for lunch. They probably won’t remember. Keep the conversation in the present moment so that they don’t have to work too hard. Point out the window and comment on the weather, comment on an item of clothing they are wearing or show them a book you are reading. Or ask questions that are purely about them giving an opinion, rather than remembering facts. Ask what they think of the weather, your jeans or a film on TV. They will speak their mind and that’s OK. The main thing is there is no right or wrong answer. They won’t be struggling to recall facts about something that happened in the past.
Above all, don’t give up on visiting and communicating with your loved one. However challenging it is, they will benefit from your time and attention.
For more info on Dementia Action Week, visit https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-involved/dementia-action-week