When Interacting with People with Dementia, Maintain a Reassuring and Calm Demeanor

Dorian Martin Health Guide

  • Recently, I was thumbing through a packet of information about caregiving that my friend Pat received from the Redwood Caregiver Resource Center in Santa Rosa, California. The literature offered some really helpful tips for caregivers, which I want to share with you. I’m also adding my own experiences to illustrate each topic.

    The Center’s recommendations include:

    • Be reassuring. Based on what I learned during caregiving, loved ones who have dementia often can be paranoid and/or unsure of themselves. For instance, Mom started thinking that my father was stealing money from her. Therefore, it’s really important for me to reassure Mom that her finances were in order and her fears were unfounded. That’s a great tip for you, too – make sure your loved one hears often that he or she is safe and well cared for.
    • Maintain a sense of calm. I learned that Mom would pick up when I was tired, angry, or frustrated, and then would project it back at me in extremely agitated behaviors. For instance, I got angry one time before we had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s when she was harping on me to dust the furniture. I already was cooking her meals and managing her medications on top of working and going to graduate school classes (and completing the reading and homework). Mom took my momentary fit of anger and magnified it six hours later by calling me out of graduate class and telling me that if I didn’t get home immediately, she was going to break something. When I got home, she told me that she was going to disown me (which was hard to hear since Mom and I had always been best friends). I didn’t argue with her and instead went to my room to let her calm down. That tactic worked, and 30 minutes later we could be in the same room together, interacting pleasantly. I realized that night that something was wrong with Mom and that it was the disease – and not my mother – who was responding.  And I also learned that if I kept a peaceful, even-keeled temperament, Mom would mirror my emotional state.
    • Respond calmly to anger. As I mentioned above, I learned a valuable lesson on what to do when Mom was angry. I also learned not to argue with Mom about her view of the facts. Thanks to the Redwood handout, I learned something new about the anger of a loved one with dementia. “Physiologically, it takes approximately 20 minutes for an angry person to calm down,” the handout noted. “During this time, it is best to make sure that you and the person with dementia remain safe. It is probably not a time to have eye contact or try to soothe the person. Let the angry person have some ‘distance’ and space. After 15-20 minutes, try distracting or redirecting the person into a comfortable activity like having a snack or taking a walk.”

    These tips can really help your interactions with a loved one with dementia to be productive.  In addition, outbursts can be part of what you’re going to face.  By being reassuring and calm, you can take the lead in creating positive, productive interactions with your loved one.

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Published On: July 15, 2011