When you break down the format of everyday conversation, you might be surprised how much it tends to be an exchange of facts. We’re often using the old-fashioned newspaper reporter method of the W’s: who, what, where and when. Sometimes we also include the “why” and “how”, but often it’s just the first four W’s.
Conversation tends to report on who did what with whom, where they went and when. We depend on each other to convey those “facts” in an accurate way, and we equate that with telling the “truth”. Since we tend to consider “truth” as a value, we place a lot of importance on conveying facts accurately.
The reality is that any of us is only ever conveying our perspective, our experience of the world, our interpretation of events. You know the old saying….” if there are 10 eyewitnesses, there are 10 different accounts”. I might even argue that you’d get 11 or 12 different accounts with 10 eyewitnesses! We each have our own understanding of events or recollection of past events.
Oftentimes, a conversation that includes sharing past memories becomes an exercise of correcting each other’s recollections of the “facts” or telling the “truth”. When different narratives emerge, a lot of effort is spent trying to reconcile those different narratives, assuming only one can be correct; or that details of each need to be merged and one variation decided upon.
The focus on “facts” and telling the “truth” makes conversation very difficult for those with dementia.
Recalling the first 4 W’s is tough: who, what, where and when. When someone’s brain has been impacted by dementia, their ability to recall precise details is impaired. Short term memory no longer encodes details into long term memory. When someone attempts to retrieve the details a few hours or days later, the information is no longer there since it was not encoded into long term memory.
Long term memory that was established decades ago may remain as the strongest memory. Eventually, even long term memories are impacted by the progression of dementia. When those memories are affected, it will be the details and the “facts” of the memory that are first at risk. Someone will continue to remember the feeling associated with a memory, but they can’t necessarily recall who was present, or when it occurred, or where exactly it was. They’re more likely to remember the “why” or the “how” of the event because those elements are typically more connected with the feelings of an event.
When trying to recall a memory, and someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s has an impression of the “why” or “how” of an event, their brain may fill in the gaps on some of the missing “facts” of the story to help it make sense. Their brain may provide a missing “who” or supply the “when” of the story—and those details do not line up with your recollection of the event.
In fact, those supplied details may not line up with the version of the story that the person told yesterday. Each time they retell the story, their brain may have to supply a different missing detail.
Instead of focusing on the “facts” of the story, focus on the feelings.
- Don’t worry about correcting the details that may have different from the last telling of the story.
- Don’t contradict the details or get worried about the “accuracy” of the story.
- Do listen to the “why” and the “how” of the story that starts to emerge.
Let your loved one explore their memory and remember that they are trying to put words to an emotional experience. The emotion of the memory may remain strong, but finding the words to express it can be difficult. If the details they supply keep being corrected by someone else, they may stop trying to articulate what they’re feeling.
Stop and consider: what is the purpose of this conversation?
If it is a nice conversation between you and a parent, then enjoy it for all it is worth! Savour the clear moments, find the emotion underneath the words, and use it as an opportunity to connect. Correcting “facts” will only inhibit the purpose of this conversation—which is to create a connection and convey love and caring.
If it is a conversation with your loved one’s family doctor, then the purpose of the conversation is different. Suddenly, the facts of a particular symptom are critical. In this case, having correct “facts” truly is the purpose of the conversation and being focused on precision is important.
When you consider the purpose of a conversation, you can remain focused on what matters most. If exchanging factually correct information isn’t the point of the conversation, then don’t worry about correcting facts!
If the purpose is to create enjoyment for your loved one, you can achieve that by supporting their feelings and their recollections. Focus on the feelings, not the facts and you’ll find conversations far more enjoyable!