4 Ways to Connect with Loved Ones with Dementia

I am delighted that this article was first published on the A Place for Mom blog.



What if we made it a priority to truly connect with our elders on a journey with dementia? Imagine the personal, real impact of spending even one hour a week being fully present with such an elder.

I had the good fortune to participate in the annual Memory Bridge Training Retreat in Bloomington, Indiana.

Following an intensive application process, only 12 participants were chosen from over 80 applicants, across 7 countries, to participate. It was six days together spent in contemplative training and real-world practice.

In the spirit of this years’ Memory Bridge Training Retreat, here are four techniques that you can use to create meaningful connections with loved ones with dementia:

1. Be Present

Julia walked into a senior living community living room, smiled, squatted beside an elder’s wheelchair, and held her hand. They gazed into each other’s eyes for a full minute or two: content, kind, patient.

We need not always fill the voids with words. We can sit quietly, utilizing nonverbal communication such as a smile or holding hands. Patience and presence is key. For those of us who serve in senior living, we often talk about the intuitive skillsets of elders with dementia – the ability to discern the intentions of a loved one or care partner. It is critical to truly be with, to be present.

2. Act as a Mirror

Ms. P couldn’t hear Marigrace without her hearing aid, so they simply sat together for a while, watching a gathering across the senior living community dining room, holding hands. After a while, Ms. P looked at Marigrace, and began to puff out each cheek. Marigrace puffed her own cheek in response, and Ms. P’s eyes lit up. They exchanged a series of puffed cheeks, raised eyebrows and scrunched noses. Both were delighted with their playful, freeing communication. Then Ms. P shared several powerful insights, including, “As long as we have this [she puffs out her cheeks again] and smile, I think we have good mental health.”

Communication may come in the form of action, and one form to communicate with is to mirror (not mimic) the motions of an elder who rarely utilizes verbal speech. The excerpt of Naomi Feil with Ms. Wilson is particularly poignant in the documentary, "There is a Bridge." Naomi initiates a connection by mirroring Ms. Wilson’s own rhythmic tapping of her hand. Author and advocate, William Kenower, writes about “joining” in the context of mirroring his son, Sawyer, who is on the spectrum. Sawyer’s journey is, of course, different from an elder with dementia; but the message is similar and beautiful.

3. Experience Music

Molly said to an elder, “I know you like music, so I thought we could listen to some of your favorite songs.” They spent the next half hour together, listening to songs, smiling, tapping and singing.

We have long known that music and rhythmic speech, like canonical prayers, are stored in portions of the brain that often remain vibrant late into various dementias. Music which has been important to an elder will likely spark connections. Consider the now famous excerpt of Mr. Henry from the Music & Memory documentary, Alive Inside. To share the favorite music of an elder or to sing with them can create meaningful connection.

4. Go with the Flow

Elders with dementia often have a fluidity to their stories and commentary – linking seemingly disparate stories and time periods into the one moment of now. If we’re not so tied to what is “present” and “real” and accept the flow, we can strengthen our emotional connection to our loved ones.

At the heart of all four of these techniques is the knowledge that an elder with dementia is neither lost nor gone. Living with dementia does not mean an end to living with hope, dignity and self-empowerment. Members of The Gathering Place in Seattle, a group of elders who are living with early-stage memory loss, wrote the following empowering message of hope to inspire other elders with early-stage dementia:
“We have learned to live with our memory loss and still have productive lives with family and friends. We would like to give you hope that you too can live a full life. There will be obstacles to come, but you have an opportunity to give back to your community and yourself, and to experience beauty, happiness, and kindness.”

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