My grandmother lived with our family while I grew up in Pennsylvania. She would spend several months with us each year. It was nice having her visit and being able to enjoy her storied memories, wisdom and humor.
One day, my “Grammy” and I were watching TV in the den. Our dog, Schnitz (Pennsylvania Dutch for “apple slices”), was sitting next to Grammy and peering through the big picture window that looked out to the front yard.
Schintz’s reflection was in the window, and Grammy remarked, “Look at that dog outside, he looks just like the one in here”.
I smiled and agreed. A few minutes later, she chuckled and said, “There is no dog out there is there?”
“No,” I replied, and we both had a good laugh for several minutes.
Grammy and I shared many special moments. We played checkers, put puzzles together, and I loved to hear her tell me stories.
She sometimes spoke in Pennsylvania Dutch — a somewhat-crude blend of English and German — with a heavy accent that was common to the people of south-central part of the state. Many times when Dad and Grammy were having a conversion, I would strain to make sense of what they were saying. I rarely could decipher all the words.
I did discover that “Schnickelfritz” meant “little troublemaker.” Hmmm — I wonder if they were talking about me.
It wasn’t long before Grammy began to develop Alzheimer’s; both memory and communication became a greater challenge. This was hard at first.
Over time, we learned to adjust our way of communicating with her. I’ve listed several tips for those who may be experiencing a similar situation.
1. Keep conversations face-to-face and use the person’s name as you establish friendly eye contact. This helps to reassure the person that he or she has your full attention.
2. Keep background noise to a minimum or eliminate it altogether. Too many distractions make it difficult to focus and keep up with a conversation.
3. Try to keep conversations one-on-one. The more people in the conversation, the more complicated it becomes.
4. Conversations should be simple and short. Being offered too many choices can be frustrating for someone with Alzheimer’s. Steer clear of open-ended questions like “What would you like to do today?” It’s better to ask, “Would you like to go for a ride in the car?”
5. Don’t argue with a person who has dementia. It only will make both of you more agitated.
6. Patience is a virtue. Resist the temptation to finish a person’s sentence. It won’t help him or her remember and can lead to greater frustration.
7. Note body-language cues, such as facial expressions and body positioning. This can lead to a better understanding of what the person is trying to convey.
8. Provide support and validation to the conversation even when the information may not be correct. Your friend might believe her deceased spouse is alive. As long as living in her reality is not hurting anybody, it is better to play along.
Above all, keep trying to communicate. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America says that talking to a non-verbal sufferer is a good way to indicate to your loved one that you still support them not only as their caregiver, but as a family member who loves them. This is vital for their well-being.
DeLong is the executive director for The Suites at Station Exchange. Email him at Suites.StationExchange@gmail.com.