Social Conversations With a Loved One With Dementia

Dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s Disease, is a big topic right now. Because my mom has Alzheimer’s and many of my friends have relatives with dementia, I have been reading books and articles and attending programs about the subject. I have learned that conversations had to change. When I visit, I can’t ask her “How are you doing?” “Did you enjoy your breakfast?” “What have you done today?” She can’t answer these questions and it frustrates her. I have to find other things to talk about with her. One of the books I read, “I’m Still Here” by John Zeisel says “ask the person with Alzheimer’s for expressions of emotions rather than cognitive data. Ask how they feel about a topic” not information about something they did. And it is important for you to be the conversation generator. They are often no longer capable of coming up with things to talk about.

I can tell my mom stories about my life and what I’m doing but I have to admit I run out of stuff to talk about. It is easier to share a story about other people or some aspect of our world. I turned to sharing books with her. Books give me something to focus on so I’m not feeling awkward and wondering “what can I talk about?” I tried a variety of books and came up with a list of qualities needed for a good read for my mom and I think it will work for others with memory issues:

  • It needs to be told in one sitting, not spread out over days.
  • It should contain something in it that will resonate with either the reader or the listener.
  • And it should be fairly upbeat or pleasant.

The idea is to prompt memories and happy emotions in those dealing with memory loss. In the early stages of the disease, you might trigger memories and your loved one will tell you a story about something they did in the past. In the later stages, you are more likely to elicit good feelings. It also might prompt some memories of your own. “I remember doing this as a child,” is a wonderful way for a grown child to connect with a parent even if the parent doesn’t remember the event. Don’t ask if the parent remembers. You are sharing a memory of yours. You are engaging with the other person and making a connection.

I have found that many children’s picture books are appropriate to share with adults. Think of them as short stories with pictures. As you read the story you can talk about the pictures, relating them to things in your own life or just admiring the beautiful artwork. Back in February I wrote an article on reading with my mom, “Picture Books are for Everyone.” Since I wrote the article I have read more picture books with her and created a number of themed lists.

I have one last list I want to share, but it is for caregivers and family members of someone with dementia to read for themselves. These are books that I found helpful: Dealing with Dementia.

Brighten your loved one’s day by sharing stories about relatable topics. Find out what interests them then try some picture books on that subject. A book can be the starting point for a wonderful conversation.

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