During the early years of Mum’s dementia, I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s Disease. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to know. Denial is a common response to bad news.
By the time I stumbled upon the book Contented Dementia in a local bookstore, I really needed help. My usual ways of communicating with Mum were just not working. The more frustrated I became, the more stress and confusion Mum experienced.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said that, “When we are unable to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Mum’s short-term memory was failing. I simply had to accept the changes and adjust my expectations and communication style to suit her reality.
In Contented Dementia, Oliver James shares a method of dementia care that his mother-in-law Penny Garner developed while looking after her mother. Penny has a very special gift of observation, and developed her method by paying close attention to what caused her mother to feel calm or distressed. After her mother died, Penny went on to work with many more people with dementia, and eventually trained numerous carers in her SPECAL method (Specialised Early Care for Alzheimer’s).
Reading Penny’s story became a turning point for me in Mum’s dementia journey. I learnt two vital lessons. Firstly, don’t ask questions, and secondly, never contradict!
- Don’t ask questions: So much of our small talk is based on asking questions: “How was your week? Did you hear the news this morning? What did you have for breakfast? Where would you like to go for coffee?” But these questions are very troubling for a person with dementia. When your short-term memory isn’t working, these questions become confusing – even threatening – reminding you of things you can’t remember.
- Never contradict: Most of us believe that it’s important to ‘tell the truth’. So, when a person with dementia starts talking about people and experiences from their past as if they were in the present, it’s natural to want to correct them. But this is pointless. As short-term memory fades, older memories become far more real. It’s much better to allow time to warp and encourage our loved ones to enjoy their reminiscences than to upset them by insisting on accuracy.
Making these two changes made a huge difference in my relationship with Mum. I’m so grateful to Penny for sharing her wisdom – the fruits of her loving relationship with her mother and her ability to pay such close attention.