The Keys to Connection-When Engaging with a Loved One or Client with Memory Impairment


Over the next three months, Inspired Memory Care will be sharing a Keys to Connection Three-Part Series. We invite you to introduce these techniques to your interactions with clients and loved ones, and hope they will empower you to create your best connections!

Steps to setting up your best interaction:

  • Be Present. To start your connection, we recommend you take a few deep breaths, put aside your tasks and be fully present. Persons with memory impairment (and all people for that matter!) appreciate your attention and can tell if you are distracted or thinking of a “to do” list while speaking with them. Remember, the individual can often best read and respond to your body language and emotions rather than your words. If you are rushing and distracted, he or she may react to this behavior and/or mirror it.

  • Assess the mood & environment. Observe your loved one or client for a moment before approaching. His or her body language, facial expressions, and environment can all be clues to unmet needs. Always ensure that your loved one or client’s physical needs are met before proceeding. If he or she is tired or uncomfortable, a shortened visit or time to simply relax together in a quiet environment is okay. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Ideas for relaxation during visits can include listening to favorite music, enjoying a hand massage, or simply watching movie scenes (YouTube is great for this) or a sunset together.

  • Be mindful that the vacuum cleaner, television, and peripheral conversations are white noise that can be hard for your loved one or client to filter out. Unless you are people-watching or celebrating a party, visit in a quiet, low-traffic area and limit the number of visitors your loved one or client is entertaining at one time. This will streamline and improve his or her processing of information and environmental stimuli.

  • If your loved one or client is angry you will want to give more space and use a more concerned tone of voice. If he or she is depressed or anxious, a gentle hand on the shoulder can serve as a signal that you care. If your loved one or client’s emotions are directed at you, one more consideration is taking a step away for a few moments for him or her to “reset,” and/or politely switching places with another person if available (different individuals may receive different responses – use this to your advantage if the visit takes a turn, and start fresh after some time has passed).

  • Identify yourself and invite. Ever run into an old acquaintance whose name you’ve forgotten? Half of the interaction is spent trying to remember his or her name to avoid embarrassment! Due to issues with word retrieval, your client or loved one may know exactly who you are, but have tremendous difficulty recalling your name. This can be (at the very least) an embarrassing moment for him or her. To avoid this possibility and foster connection, casually state your name to begin the interaction. For instance, “Good morning _____, it’s ________! I’m so glad we are spending this time together today! Would you like to join me for a coffee? May I sit here with you?” This type of introduction can supply necessary information and provide choice, and dignity to your client or loved one, overcoming the memory impairment, providing control, and establishing connection.

Be mindful that the following may hinder a connection:

  • Beginning your conversation by asking “do you remember” or asking “What did you . . . today?” The answer is too frequently “no” or “I don’t know.” Rather than quizzing, it is better to politely offer a reminder; for instance, if an individual complains they have not eaten lunch, rather than responding with, “do you remember we had . . . ?” ask the more important question “are you feeling hungry?” and offer some fruit or a lighter snack if his or her answer is “yes.”

We hope these techniques will set you on the path to beginning your best connections with your loved one or client.

Inspired Memory Care, Inc., is a memory-care consulting firm based in Manhattan. Kelly Gilligan and Nettie Harper founded the practice to meet the needs of families, facilities, and agencies serving elders with cognitive impairment. It is their strong conviction that individuals with dementia (in all stages) want and deserve to be viewed as people, rather than as people with a disease. As human beings, they need sustained connections with loved ones, meaningful roles within the community, and access to learning and beauty. But changing the world around them takes creativity, expertise, and -- often -- time that caregivers don’t always have! Kelly and Nettie dedicate their careers to opening doors previously locked to this population through supplemental programming, creative interventions, and adaptive experiences. They partner with direct caregivers, facility teams, and families to support them in achieving an Inspired life with their clients and loved ones.

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