The COVID-19 pandemic put a huge damper on visitations with older family members, and if your loved one is in an assisted living community with memory care options, you may not have been able to see them regularly. But even before that, family that lived far away may have found that phone calls helped them keep in touch with senior loved ones when distance made in-person visiting less of an option.
Talking on the phone with a loved one who is dealing with memory issues can be difficult, though. Check out these tips for making those calls more enjoyable for everyone.
Video calls make it possible to incorporate visual cues, including eye contact and hand gestures, into the conversation. This is important because all people tend to communicate better when they can see everything that's going on. We often don't realize how much of our communication is nonverbal. And for someone with dementia or other memory issues, those visual cues can help them stay focused on the conversation or even understand what's being said. Plus, constantly getting your faces in front of an older loved one can help them remember you.
Plan ahead with some topics that you know might be interesting to your loved one. You can have a story or two you want to share with them, but make sure you have something to ask them that they might want to talk about. Dementia and other memory conditions have numerous phases, and every person is different. Your loved one might be able to carry on a fairly normal conversation with a few lapses in memory. Or, they may not be able to talk about or remember anything new. In this case, ask about a story you know they can tell you and let them tell it to you — even if you hear it every time they talk to you.
While you should be prepared with questions and prompts to help guide the conversation, don't take it over. Let the other person have an equal say too. Everyone has good and bad days, and on good days, your older loved one may be able to handle conversation at a better level than you!
Make an effort to understand the best time of day for your loved one. Some people with memory issues have a harder time at the end of the day, for example, so you might want to schedule calls with them in the morning.
People or pets popping in and out of the background, the television or calls beeping in can all be distracting for anyone. And for someone with memory issues, those little things can derail the conversation to a point that it's impossible to get back on track. Work together to minimize distractions to improve the value of each call.
Depending on where your loved one is with their memory issues, they may need help minimizing distractions and even making a phone call. Work with someone local to them to help. If your loved one is in an assisted living community like Autumn View Gardens on Schuetz Road, this is no problem. You can ask the staff to help out.
Use people's names more than their relationships. Don't say "Hey, it's your daughter." Say "Hi, it's Sue." Someone with dementia may not remember all their relatives. If they've progressed with the disease, they may believe they are living at a time that's earlier in their life, which could mean before having grandkids, kids or even a spouse. By using names, you help avoid any confusion.
This doesn't mean you should talk down to your loved one or act like they're stupid, because they aren't. It does mean ensuring the discussion is about one thing at a time and in a linear fashion. Don't jump around or bring other topics in until you're ready to transition completely away from something.
Finally, avoid asking questions that are too open-ended, as these can be overwhelming. For example, "What kind of food do you like?" may be confusing and provide too much range. Instead, you might ask a question such as "When you eat dessert, do you prefer cake or ice cream?"
It's important to know your loved one's limitations too. You don't want to ask questions like "What did you do yesterday?" or even "Did you like the bingo game yesterday?" if your loved one has trouble with short-term memory and may not remember what they did.