Our love ones often travel backwards in time, speaking of a memory as if it was happening now. Or maybe, they mix an old memory – or two – with something happening now, on the news or within a conversation they have overheard. And suddenly there is a story that is very believable to them and ripe with raw emotions that may include fear, anxiety, worry. Our impulse at that moment is to pull them back to us – out of the world that is frightening them and back into ours – back into the present moment. But as reasonable as that seems to us, it creates even more confusion for them, thus amplifying their fears and anxiety.
So what can we do to help?
Respond to their emotions, not what they are saying or doing, but what they are feeling to prompt them to say or do what they are. More often than not it is fear or worry, so we need to approach them in a way that can provide reassurance, comfort, and safety. If the memory they are pulling on is painful or frightening, reassure them that they are safe now and everything is okay now. This lets them know you hear them and acknowledge their feelings. And, avoids debating (because they will!) over when things happened, but rather reassures them that it’s safe now at this moment. It is a more comforting way of bringing them out of the painful memory and gently bringing them back to a safe present time.
Follow up with something that brings them a sense of security, calmness, and joy, like having a cup of tea and talking about spring coming; looking out into their yard at the birds; playing music they love and maybe slow dancing with them; holding hands and singing a song or saying a prayer. All these very simple tasks can bring calm back into their minds and hearts in a peaceful and soothing way.
It always helps if you know happy, positive memories from your loved one’s past, particularly if they are stuck in or perseverating over a bad moment in time. Offering a positive memory to counter the bad memory, such as saying “I was thinking about that time when…”, helps them time travel to a safer spot in their mind. Chatting about that offers comfort, and perhaps an opportunity to laugh as they reminisce, thus offsetting and replacing the negative feelings.
The bottom line is that we want to keep it as simple as possible in our approach to keep them feeling safe and calm. This is a complicated disease and so naturally, we think we need to take a complicated, complex approach. But just the opposite is true. Much like other aspects of caring for a loved one with dementia, our approach has to be tweaked into directions that are contrary to everything we’ve done over the last many years with our loved one. It doesn’t make sense, but then again, neither does this disease. But, recognizing their emotions in the moment, and responding to those, is a far more sensible way to help them – and us – find peace in this journey.