After over a year of experiencing the isolation and separation that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, for many families and caregivers, life is finally beginning to proceed in a more normal fashion. Senior living providers have succeeded in their vaccination efforts, and in accordance with all state and local guidelines they are now taking steps toward resuming more regular visitations. For those who have received their COVID-19 vaccinations, the long awaited face-to-face visits and hugs are happening. As you plan to begin those visits, remember to keep the important safety guidelines in mind.
Even though Facetime and Skype calls have kept people connected, there is nothing like an in-person visit. If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia, during those virtual visits you may have noticed a further decline in their cognition or physical condition as a result of not being able to be as actively engaged as they previously were. To date there have been many published articles indicating that both mental and physical health in older people have been negatively affected during the social distancing caused by COVID-19.
It’s not at all unusual that family caregivers may be feeling anxious about what to expect when reconnecting in person and here are some tips that may be helpful.
- Center First
Even when regularly visited by a close family member there are some persons living with memory loss who may no longer recognize their loved ones. This is because their dementia has progressed to a place where they are no longer as connected to people, places and events in the present. Especially if this has occurred in the past, you’ll want to prepare yourself for the possibility of this happening again. Begin by taking a few deep centering breaths immediately prior to your visit. Watch this centering exercise from the Validation Training Institute for help.
Centering will help you to feel calm and more open, more fully present and better able to accept the current reality of your loved one. Therefore, you’ll be able to connect with them in the moment, regardless of their ability to recognize you. You might find that after spending some quality time together they will show signs of recognizing you even if they do not call you by name and the experience will be mutually rewarding.
- Make Good Eye Contact
Focus on her rather than on tasks like tidying up her room or other things in the environment. Making good eye contact is an important first step in making a meaningful connection. Pull a chair up in front of her and be sure to get on the same level as her eyes.
- Say Something Familiar, Bring Something Familiar or Introduce Yourself if Necessary
Greet him the way you always did in the past. Keep a warm voice tone, speak slowly enough for him to understand you and give adequate time for a response before saying something else. Remember that it will take longer for the person experiencing memory loss to process information and respond. If your loved one appears to be confused and unsure of who you are, it’s ok to introduce yourself. For example, you might say, “Hi Mom, it’s your girl Jody. I’ve missed you and am so happy to be here with you today.” “I’ve brought some of your favorite cookies, the ones you taught me to make when I was a little girl.” “Let’s have them with a cup of your favorite tea.” Sharing a favorite food and reminiscing about the past can be very enjoyable as well as therapeutic.
- Ask Open Questions and Listen with Empathy
If your loved one is still able to hold a conversation, rather than asking him questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no response, which keeps it a very closed conversation, ask questions that will encourage him to say more. Instead of saying, “Are you hungry for lunch?, say, “If you could have your favorite lunch today what would it be?” Asking open questions encourages verbal expression.
Maintain an attitude of empathy. Naomi Feil is the founder of the Validation method and one of her 11 Validation Principles is, “Listening with empathy builds trust, reduces anxiety and restores dignity.” Many measurable positive outcomes result when we Validate or communicate with empathy; such as increased verbal and non-verbal communication, increased alertness and engagement, increased movement and ambulation, less anxiety and stress for the older person living with dementia, and reduced caregiver stress or burnout. Focus more on their feelings than on the truth or the facts and don’t try to correct their perception of the truth.
- Connect through Music and the Senses
Feil was among the first in the field of gerontology to identify music as a key therapeutic method of communication. If your loved one is no longer verbal, you can connect by singing or playing her favorite song or genre of music. Or you may prefer to connect in an even more sensory way by sharing her favorite food, beverage, flowers, or by providing a hand massage with her favorite lotion.
I’ll always be grateful to Naomi Feil and her tireless work, dedication and insight into the world of disoriented elders which resulted in the Validation method. Validation is a truly person-centered approach to communication. By adopting the empathetic attitude and applying some of the Validation techniques, you will be able to reconnect in an even deeper and more meaningful way.
The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.
By: Rita Altman VTI Board Member, Sunrise Advisor, Memory Care at Sunrise Senior Living