The Gift of Purpose

The holiday season has busy and joyful energy to it.  It often feels like there’s a buzz in the air where everyone is rushing somewhere or hurrying to do something.

 

Many people with dementia are sensitive to the energy and emotional state of those around them. They will often pick up on this energy of hurrying and they may want to help. They’ll want to join in the activity and be part of the buzz of energy.

 

Human nature desirses a sense of purpose.

 

We want to feel productive and we want to provide meaningful contributions.  This sense of wanting to contribute and be helpful and productive is not impacted by many forms of dementia, so people very much want to be involved and be helpful. When someone with dementia can sense that everyone else around them is hurrying to complete tasks, they will want to join in and assist too.

 

 

If someone’s functioning level has been impacted, it may be difficult for them to contribute in the ways they did previously.  In the past, your father may have gone to select a Christmas tree and cut it down himself, then tie it to the roof rack, drive home, and set the tree up. That may no longer be possible for him to do entirely on his own. Perhaps he doesn’t drive anymore; perhaps his physical strength or sense of direction is impaired.

 

Even though he cannot complete the task in full, is there a way that he can still be involved in the process?  Can he be part of the trip to select the tree? Can he manage some of the cutting? Or hold the tree steady while a grandson saws away?  Continuing to involve him in the process will be important to his sense of self-esteem and his need to feel productive. 

 

Many forms of dementia interfere with the brain’s ability to sequence an activity. 

 

Many tasks are actually a series of separate, smaller tasks that must be done in a particular order.  Baking, for example, involves many separate tasks that are all sequenced in the right order. Perhaps your mother-in-law baked countless cookies and squares during the holiday season. Now, she makes toast and tea, but not much more. Expecting that she can bake a dozen varieties of cookies is not reasonable, but involving her in a few favourite recipes will help her to shine.

 

When approaching a complex task like baking, break down each step into a separate task. If there are any tasks that can be a stand-alone job, get your mother-in-law to be in charge of that step. Maybe the walnuts need to be crushed for one recipe. You can get your mother-in-law set up crushing walnuts. It may be faster to do it yourself or tempting to use the electric food processor, but the purpose isn’t to be fast and efficient.

 

The purpose is to involve your mother-in-law in the traditions that she founded.  It’s pretty likely that she didn’t have an electric food processor when she first started baking that recipe.  Breaking the walnuts by hand is likely a familiar task from years gone by and something which she can feel successful contributing.

 

All too often, someone with dementia will say “what can I do?” or perhaps “I don’t know what to do…” and well-meaning family members will respond “you don’t have to do anything! You just relax and sit over here.”  In some cases, if someone is overstimulated and needs a break, that might be the kindest option. But in most instances, the person with dementia is genuinely reaching out and wanting to feel productive by contributing something meaningful to all that is going on around them.  By finding a task that matches their ability level, you are helping to meet that fundamental human need for productivity.

 

Remember that the task might not be about doing. It might be more about being—being close to you, being part of the action, being a contributing family member.  If many tasks are just too difficult or overwhelming, perhaps they can be involved in a being type of way.

 

Maybe the dog is overly excited by all of the activity and you can ask your father to hold the dog on his lap and pet the dog to keep him calm.  He is being a comfort to the dog…or perhaps the dog is a comfort to him, but either way, they are both content.

 

 

Perhaps you’re wrapping presents and the roll of tape keeps disappearing under all the wrapping paper and boxes. Your mother-in-law might like to be the keeper of the tape as you’re wrapping. She’s right there with you and she’s involved in her own way. You may even get to chuckle about how you lose the tape and she’s keeping you on track.

 

It may take more effort on your part, and it will definitely take more time and some creativity to find tasks that match ability levels and provide meaningful contributions, but the rewards will almost certainly be worth it!

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The Season of Thanksgiving & Reminiscing

Does your family have any Thanksgiving traditions? Do you share memories of years past, and do you share what you’re grateful for this year?

 

If you have family members who have dementia, there are ways to make these traditions more inclusive and enjoyable for them too. 

 

 

The wonderful thing about stating what you’re thankful for is that the answer can’t be wrong!  No matter what you are thankful for, no one else can say that the answer doesn’t count. This is a great conversation starter for someone who has dementia.  It does not depend on factual memory, there is no right or wrong answer, and any answer can spark new discussion.

 

To make it easier for your loved one who has dementia, be sure to provide an example.  It can be a lot of pressure to ask them first—“What are you thankful for?”  Instead, you can start, and then ask “are you thankful for anything granddad?”

 

To keep the conversation going, you can encourage reminiscing, but be careful to avoid making grandad feel that he has to justify his answer.  Here are some examples that might echo someone’s automatic response, but are not recommended, followed by an example that is more dementia-supportive.

 

Not recommnded:

Granddad responds: “I’m thankful for you!” and you respond “and why are you thankful for me?”  Your intent is to keep granddad engaged in the conversation, but instead, it may feel like he has to justify his answer. That can add stress and pressure to granddad and he may be less likely to answer any other questions if he has to justify his response.

 

Supportive: 

You can affirm his answer by saying “why thanks Granddad, and I’m thankful for you too! I’m grateful we’re having Thanksgiving dinner together with you tonight.”  You have affirmed granddad’s answer and kept your response in the present moment so granddad doesn’t have to rely on recent memory. 

 

If your granddad’s short term memory is highly impacted, he may have clearer memories of his childhood and he may often talk about his childhood.  He may state that he’s thankful for his mother or his younger sister, both of whom have long since passed.

 

Not Recommended:

“Granddad your mother has been dead for nearly 30 years.  Surely you have something to be grateful for today.”  This response tells granddad that his answer is wrong, and it shuts down further conversation.  It eliminates the opportunity for reminiscing and revealing his state of mind or thought process. It may also rip open the wound of grief if granddad has briefly forgotten that his mother is deceased and he may grieve her as though it is a new loss.

 

Supportive:

“oh yes Granddad, your mother was a very special woman.  Do you have a favourite memory of her?”  This response validates Granddad’s answer and opens up the opportunity for more conversation.  The follow-up question is completely open-ended—he can say “no” he doesn’t have a favourite memory and that’s okay. If he is reminiscing and can remember something special, he is free to share.  You might be amazed where the walk down memory lane can lead!

 

When encouraging someone to reminisce, aim to keep your follow up questions open-ended or opinion-based. If you ask fact-based questions it can feel like a test with an inferred right or wrong answer.

 

Not Recommended:

A fact-based question might be: “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Do you remember what type of pie she baked?” There is an inferred right or wrong answer and it feels like a test. 

 

Supportive:

Instead, ask opinion questions that cannot be right or wrong.  “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Did you have a favourite flavour of pie?”

 

Not Recommended:

If Granddad responds “I liked mother’s strawberry pie at thanksgiving” and you know that his mother did not make a strawberry pie, do not correct him!  It is NOT helpful to say “oh granddad, that can’t be right. Your mother only ever used fresh fruit from the farm. She made strawberry pies in June with fresh strawberries from the field.  At Thanksgiving, it had to be apple or pumpkin.”

 

Your response may be factually correct, but does it really matter?  How does it make granddad feel to be corrected? It tells him that his answers are incorrect and will likely shut down further conversation. Is the purpose of the conversation to exchange correct facts, or is the purpose to help granddad reminisce and share positive memories in a loving environment?

 

Supportive:

“Your mother’s strawberry pies certainly were delicious!  Wasn’t there a time when you were a little boy and you stole the pie out of the window where your mother left it cooling?”  You validated your grandfather’s response about strawberry pies without correcting his response. To keep the conversation going, you’ve supplied more information to possibly spark his memory. 

 

This is a story you’ve heard him tell many times before, and each time his face lights up with a mischievous grin—just like he’s 9 years old all over again!  You’re giving him the gift of remembering a story that he loves to tell, and instead of testing his memory, you spark his memory and let him tell the details of the story as he remembers it.  If his details differ from the last time he told the story, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is the star of the moment, telling his story the way he remembers it.

 

 

When you're together with family this Thanksgiving, and you have the opportunity to reminisce with family members who may have dementia, aim to provide supportive responses that keep the conversation going. 

 

Remember that the purpose of the conversation is not to exchange factually correct information.  The purpose is to share quality time with loved ones, validate their feelings, and share a moment of open love and trust.  You may just be amazed at the memories that surface!

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