Memory Difficulties are the most common symptom people living with dementia experience.
Conversations generally rely on us remembering what has been said just a minute ago to keep the flow which can be tricky and our ‘small talk’ usually relies heavily on recalling memories.
We hear stories from our beneficiaries on a weekly basis of how friendships fade away as the person starts to lose confidence in having conversations and because conversations can be tricky and uncomfortable friends stop trying.
It doesn’t have to be like that though and this simple tweak to the questions you ask in your ‘small talk’ can lead to the most wonderful, interesting and successful interactions.
The best advice is to avoid questions requiring memory, it can leave people with uncomfortable choices.
Look at these questions from the perspective of someone living with memory difficulties…
What did you do this weekend?
I don’t remember so I am left with some choices as to how to respond…
· Lie. (If I make something up I may save face but I am left with a feeling of discomfort because I have lied to you.)
· Come clean. (Telling you I have dementia and I don’t remember what I did makes me feel vulnerable. I might not feel I know you well enough to do that and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable.)
· Make an excuse… I could pretend I can’t hear very well or say “I’m ever so sorry I think I have left my bag somewhere…” or say “So much has happened its all a bit of a blurr.” All I am thinking about is ‘how can I get away. I’m not feeling comfortable and I can bet you’re not either.
“How do you like to spend your time?”
This lovely open question allows me to explore whatever comes in to my head. It requires no hard facts. For example I might like to spend my time gardening. (I might not have done it for years. It doesn’t matter.) Now we are talking about gardening and we are both interested.
“Do you have a favourite place?”
This is a great alternative to ‘where did you go on holiday? If I can’t think of the name of a specific place I can tell you I love to be near the sea or that I love mountains. You can tell me the places that you like too and we can talk about why.
“What are your thoughts on this?”
Talking about something that is in front of me right now in the moment like a piece of art or a news story in the paper or a floral arrangement gives our conversation focus right here and now. We can both access all we need for the conversation to be successful.
“What is your opinion on the choice I am trying to make?”
Outlining a decision you are trying to make and asking my opinion reaffirms my value in our conversation. It helps me to feel that my opinion matters and I am very likely to be able to help you out. Should you cut your hair or leave it to grow? Should you plant pansies or sunflowers in the space in your garden? You can show me pictures of the choices to help us both.
“I wonder what it would be like to be invited to Buckingham Palace?”
‘I wonder’ questions are great because I can use my imagination and so can you. This may seem random but if it is sparked by looking at a picture of the queen it won’t feel so random. I wonder questions allow us to explore all sorts of ideas without having to recall facts.
Memory Matters South West CIC run Workshops in ‘Exploring Dementia’ throughout the year in Plymouth and Cornwall. You can find out about our next courses here.
Laura Walker is co-founder and co-director of Memory Matters South West CIC and Moments Cafe, Plymouth. She is a trained mental health nurse, trainer and coach.