This ice breaker question got me thinking about dementia engagement during COVID-19 (and after).
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? This question is commonly suggested as an icebreaker. But most recently, this question helped me develop a way to explain the importance of a basic engagement activity for people with dementia that can be implemented any time, anywhere, with anyone, especially during COVID-19.
Four days ago, I was having a conversation with a new friend and I started to talk about how my mindset, the way I handled challenges, made decisions, and viewed the world are completely different now. I thought to myself “if I knew then what I know now, I’d be in a completely different place in life.”
This immediately got me thinking about my paternal grandparents, Meme and Poppy. I was very close to them, and if you’ve been following me and reading my articles, you know they were the reason I had so much empathy for and interest in working with older adults and opening my company, Trovato (they also inspired the name and logo).
As I make personal and professional decisions, I want to hear what my Meme and Poppy think. I imagine that if I have noticeably more wisdom as I get older, I can only imagine how much wisdom they could share. More importantly, I think that what has changed the most between my teens, 20s and now is that now I am more receptive to their wisdom.
Conversations with older adults with dementia
Older adults with dementia have had long lives filled with wisdom. Conversations with them are beneficial to us and to the person with dementia. Many of my clients’ family members have phone that having a phone conversation with their loved one with dementia presents new challenges, so I have provided virtual communication coaching to them. However, even the skills required to create, maintain, encourage, and interpret a conversation with someone with language and processing challenges is not taught in formal education or dementia certification programs. So, both care partners and professionals would benefit from learning these skills.
As we provide socialization opportunities to older adults, with and without dementia, during COVID-19, and beyond, more emphasis should be placed on how to have meaningful conversations. Especially as abilities to have conversations may decline with dementia, having these skills are important. Having a conversation with someone who has difficulty finding the right words or following a conversation is still possible with modifications and coaching on how to make those modifications. Individuals will dementia still have so much wisdom to share but sometimes it may require more interpretation on our part.
1. Have background information about the person. Having this information can help with creating conversation prompts. You may have to prepare in advance if you have the time.
2. Share about yourself. Sharing information about yourself can create a good conversation. They may have information to contribute and other times they may just want to listen.
3. Ask for help by stating you need it. For example, If you’re having a challenge with a friend, share that. “I’m not sure what I should say to my friend who is upset with me.
4. Avoid quizzing or putting the person on the spot. Contrary to popular belief, saying things like “tell me about your favorite vacation” or “what was your favorite vacation” can feel like a quiz to some people.
5. Be supportive when the conversation is challenging for them. Read the nonverbal cues, reassure, and then be prepared to take over the conversation. I say things like “It’s hard to explain your own thoughts to others. I have that challenge too sometimes.” Then, I take over with a quick “But, I heard you are a great painter!”
6. Be more patient than usual. Use fewer words, take more pauses, and allow more time to respond. Doing so will allow them or you to process and respond better.
7. Don’t tell them you don’t understand what they’re saying. Saying “I don’t understand what you’re seeing” can be frustrating for someone whether they think they are being clear or know that they’re not.
8. Allow the conversation to go in different directions. They may shift subjects quickly or their misunderstanding may require you to shift the conversation to something else that makes more sense to them at that moment.
9. Use gentle cues to remind them of the purpose of the conversation. For example, you may say, “Wow, you’re so knowledgeable about plants and I knew talking to you would help me.” It’s a gentle way to frame the conversation when they may have forgotten or lost track.
10. Take notes to revisit the conversation later. Taking notes can be a great tool to help prompt future conversations or engagement activities. Also, how great would it be to create a book of “life lessons” from these conversations? It could be a great gift for friends and families.
Wisdom from my Poppy
This is a story I often recall that my Poppy told me:
My Poppy was in the car with his friend and coworker, who was driving. His friend stopped abruptly and the person in the car behind them honked at them, in annoyance and frustration, and threw his hands up. This is when My Poppy’s friend, a very tall and muscular man and somewhat of a hothead, got out of his car and walked over to the offending car, opened the hood, and angrily disconnected the horn. My grandfathers advice was “Don’t honk your horn at people when they do something wrong. They made the mistake and let them peacefully continue on their way.” This story was enough to prevent a 16 year old from honking at other drivers, but it also has a lot of insight that can be applied to various aspects of life.
I wish I had more stories from my Meme and Poppy that I could apply to other areas of life. So, if I could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, I would choose my Meme and Poppy.