How to work with someone to tell their story when they have dementia, Alzheimer's or another kind of memory loss
Sometimes it can be hard to have, what we consider to be, meaningful conversations with someone who is experiencing memory loss. It may even seem silly to you to help someone tell their story when they are suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer's. you may be thinking that you won't be able to get the whole story or, what really happened.
In the end, though, it's about them. Their recollections and perceptions admittedly may not accurately reflect the actual events, but what they know, remember, and feel now is equally as important and valid. It's our job to help them remember what they can and put that into words or whatever medium makes them smile. Just the fact that you have taken the time to have the conversation with them is enough.
What do they know & remember?
Depending on how advanced their case is, memory loss sufferers will remember different things at different times, and the details may also vary dramatically. That is why I suggest using some type of recording process, whether you actually record the conversation with a device or write notes down during or after.
Examples of questions to ask someone who still has some memories:
- What was your favorite childhood memory?
- What was your favorite Christmas memory?
- What was your favorite summertime activity?
These are simple questions that may tap into emotional memories that may trigger the actual memories. The hope is, through more detailed questions, you can have them paint a picture of the moment through words.
What do they feel now?
Talking to them about how they are feeling right now is a great way to open up a conversation about other things that are affecting them. For instance, asking how they are doing will result in a short answer, but gives you the opportunity to ask a follow-up question like “why do you feel that way” or “what made you feel that way today”.
These types of questions validate their feelings, empowers them to answer honestly, and potentially impacts their day to day life.
- How are you doing today?
- Why do you feel that way?
- What made you feel that way?
- Who made you feel that way?
- How are you doing today?
- What are you looking forward to today?
- Why are you excited about it?
- What would you like to do that would make your day better?
Approaching the conversation this way gives you the opportunity to assess how they perceive their current state and what their life is like.
Once you begin these types of conversations, you will find that it becomes easier and the person you are working with is more open with you. A relationship founded on dignity and mutual respect will give you and them a better quality of life.
What is going on in their life currently?
Someone experiencing memory loss will not have the same experience telling their story that someone who can remember their childhood will have. That does not discount or make the exercise less important. It does change the potential conversation topics.
Examples of what to ask:
- What is going on your life right now?
- What makes you smile?
- What would you like to do more of?
- How do you feel about your day?
- Who do you wish you could see more of?
- Who makes you smile and why?
- Would you like to learn something new? If yes, what would you like to learn?
These questions will open up the chance for them to look forward and beyond their current living situation. Also, this kind of conversation empowers them to take ownership of their feelings and life in a way they might not have been able to before.
Why does it matter?
When it really comes down to it, everyone has a story worth telling and we need to be there to hear it.
Taking the time to have these conversations with people regardless of their cognitive ability is crucial to their quality of life. The simple act of sitting with someone and really listening to how they are doing is a simple way to make a huge impact.
From my experience, I have seen families grow closer, and more, just by changing how they are talking with their loved one. The elder also may exhibit changes in behavior and a renewed interest in life. The benefits and the “whys” are endless.
So, what's the takeaway?
It’s not about you. It’s not about your expectations and what something should look like.
It’s about the person you are working with and their human experience.