Creating meaningful connections with a loved one with memory loss can be frustrating at first, but ultimately it can be very rewarding. Sometimes the supposed "tried and true" methods that caregivers, family members and friends use to connect with the individual seem to have minimal to no effect. As a result, one area that can easily be overlooked for those with memory loss is socializing through activities.
Research studies have found that seniors who engage in stimulating activities have a greater sense of well-being and cognitive health. While maintaining a routine with your loved one with memory loss helps to make their world much more predictable, it's equally important to offer them some experiences that are novel and enjoyable.
For some, the task of truly engaging a loved one with memory impairment in an activity or social event can seem daunting. It is best to first introduce the topic in conversation. Begin by physically placing yourself at or slightly below their eye level to ensure good eye contact and always read their body language. Try to match their mood and voice tone with your voice tone, which helps to create better conversation. Also, be sure to speak more slowly and pause after you speak, giving them time to process the information and respond.
In making your decision about engaging them in a new or different activity, keep the following tips in mind.
- Know their likes and dislikes. By planning activities or events that your loved one enjoyed in the past, they are much more likely to participate or remember the activity. If they seem unsure or reticent, ask them to "help" you or to teach you something about the activity. You might be surprised to hear them tell a story from start to finish about some hobby, sport or activity they did earlier in their lifetime.
- Adapt the activity to meet their current level of ability. The goal is to always make them feel successful. For example, if they once had a very green thumb, help them plant a garden and encourage them to assist with easier tasks. Much of their implicit or procedural memory remains in their fingertips, and if you give them the opportunity to try you might discover that they are capable of doing more than you thought they could. Show them the produce and fruit and praise them for their effort and success.
- Utilize music whenever you can. At every stage of memory loss, music is one of the most powerful ways to communicate. Many caregivers have been amazed to hear their loved one who can no longer speak in complete sentences sing a song from beginning to end. Play their favorite music, sing with them, or dance together. If they still enjoy being out and about, and don't mind being around crowds, gather a group together and head out for a concert.
- Make it real. Engage your loved one's senses as much as possible. For example, when discussing their favorite or most-liked foods, try to recreate their favorite dish or have them help you to make it. If they loved their mother's apple pie, take them to the orchard or farmer's market to pick or select the apples and ask them to help you to prepare it. Even as a loved one enters the later stages of memory loss, they can benefit from assisting you in some of the steps of preparing food or just watching and taking in the scents, as a familiar smell can stimulate memories from the past and create a feeling of warmth and security.
Memory loss is a journey, and these tips may not be successful every time for every person. Remember that taking a few deep breaths to center yourself especially if things get stressful will work wonders in helping you to meaningfully connect with your loved one. Sit back, close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths. It may be best to do this in private to get the full effect, but you will find that this simple act not only helps you to feel calmer but also focuses your energy.
It is also important to get your loved one's feedback about their experiences. By including questions that ask them about extremes, such as "What was the best (or worse) thing about this activity?" you will be able to elicit even more conversation and give them the opportunity to feel valued and heard. Always give them an opportunity to teach you something. Listen to their stories and appreciate their wisdom. Breaking out of your usual routines when it comes to conversation and activities can often bring about positive and unexpected moments of joy.
To participate with your loved one in an activity geared toward seniors, you can stop by a Sunrise Senior Living community during the upcoming Sunrise Spirit Week.
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