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The Keys to Connection Three-­Part Series When Engaging with a Loved One or Client with Memory Impai

We hope you found parts one and two of our series, The Keys to Connection, beneficial. Many thanks to Katie and Elissa of Live Connected for featuring us. If you missed the first two installments to this three­-part series, you can find them by clicking here.

Tips for facilitating expression:

Identify repetition as an invitation to explore. ​As your conversation unfolds, your client or loved one may speak or inquire repetitively about a person or place that is gone. Try to avoid panicking or fibbing. Very frequently, there is a real need being expressed, and immediate redirection will fail. Focus on the emotion, and try to ask open-­ended questions. For instance, “you seem to be thinking a lot about your mother . . . you must really miss her. Will you tell me more about her? What do you miss the most? Is there ever a time when . . . ” Keeping the conversation going will help to give clues as to what your loved one may be seeking. For instance, mothers can represent comfort, affection, safety, structure, or even work (for those who cared for them in later life). Following your loved one or client’s lead may bring you to clarity.

Honor the individual's need to express emotions. ​As caregivers, we are trained to fix, but sometimes there are feelings that simply need to be expressed and grieved. This can be particularly difficult when we feel accused. While it is painful and uncomfortable to field “negative” emotions from those we care about, it is necessary for those feelings to be experienced and shared. Listening with honesty builds trust. It’s acceptable to say, “I wish I could fix this-- ­­this is hard,” or “I’m sorry I don’t understand, but I’m here with you,” or even, “I can see you need some space. I will be back to check in on you in a few minutes. I truly want this time with you when you’re ready.” Each of these statements honors the individual experience and creates a space for grieving and expression.

Foster creative outlets for expression. ​When spoken words fail, foster opportunities for expression through writing, art, music, rhythm and even simple motion. Journaling, poetry, storytelling and other forms of written narrative can provide opportunities for individuals struggling with word­-finding or self­-disclosure. They can work at their own pace and express in a more private capacity. Letter writing is also effective for those wishing to maintain a sense of connection to far away friends and family.

Additionally, the creation of art requires no words whatsoever, and offers countless mediums for expression. For individuals who are struggling to express verbally, painting, sculpting, collaging, and sketching can all bring emotions to light in a healthy way. Likewise, utilizing music and/or rhythm to connect a feeling to song can not only support expression, but allow opportunity for the care partner to match the emotion and share in it musically.

Finally, moving together, whether in repetitive motion or through spontaneous dance, can bring care partners together, as they mirror one another’s movements to share in the creation of a unique choreography or the completion of a project.

Embrace silence. ​It is important to remember that not every second of your visit needs to be filled with words. Sometimes fewer words and increased silence can be impactful. Offering a touch and embracing the silence together can empower you to connect with your loved one or client as well!

Be mindful that the following may hinder a connection:

Mistaking slowing down for talking down.​ All people are sensitive to condescension, and may become angered by people treating or speaking to them differently due to a disease. The same is true for those experiencing dementia, so speak in a respectful tone. There is often a heightened emotional awareness that people with dementia experience. In line with disliking being condescended to, many become angered by people who feel “sorry” for them or pity them. The best emotional connections and greatest building of trust come with really listening and relating honestly, as well as respecting choice and independence.

Beating yourself up!​ You are learning a new language. No one is born fluent, and it takes years to practice and perfect. Just remember, one of the gentlest aspects of forgetting is the forgiveness built into it. If you misstep, you and your loved one or client will both recover. What is most important is that you maintain your connection over time. Togetherness – whether full of conversation or in perfect silence – is all that matters!

We hope IMC’s three part Keys to Connection Series proves useful in supporting your interactions with loved ones and clients. We encourage you to share any questions or suggestions you may have on our blog by clicking here. To see our next opportunities for live training, click here. If you are interested in pursuing training for your organization, please contact us through our website or by phone at (973) 556-­5990. We look forward to connecting with you!

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. For further information or questions for IMC, contact us at or (973) 556­-5990.

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