Clear, heart-level communication is often difficult to achieve. Just this week, I’ve experienced various critical conversations and coached others through strained and difficult discussions. Those experiences reminded me of more lessons I learned while care-giving for my Dad.
These communication tips helped me to connect more deeply with him, but they are very relevant for conversations with others too. Let me know what you think!
Enter his world
Because of his dementia, my dad sees people and animals that aren’t there, he accuses us of stealing his things, and he fixates incessantly about past responsibilities that are irrelevant today. Instinctively, I want to correct him, defensively deny his accusations, or demand that he stop worrying about things – none of which does any good!
It works better when I listen carefully for the context or the history behind his comments, rather than arguing their validity.
- When I ask him to tell me more about the people or animals he sees, I get to hear stories of a younger brother who died, good friends he enjoyed, or favorite pets he misses a lot.
- If I empathize with his frustration over “lost” items instead of denying blame, I gain insight into his priorities, his passions, and his past care for me and our family.
- When I reply to his sense of responsibility with “That must be important to you. How can I help?”, he can relax in my care instead of struggling to convince me that his work is important and valuable.
I recognize that these same principles work – and more easily(!) – with people who don’t have dementia.
Know the triggers
Care-giving is challenging, exhausting work. In my case, it is especially difficult when my dad’s unkind or angry comments trigger a deeply rooted emotion from my childhood experience. Old insecurities, differing values and opinions, or negative interaction patterns quickly reappear from my youth.
It is important for me to seek self-awareness of those triggers and remember that what may be a valid memory does not have to determine my response today. He is different now… and so am I.
Self awareness of my emotional triggers is key for all my conversations. My reactions are often more about me than about what others have said. As I identify the root cause of my reactions, I can respond with objectivity, grace, and humility instead of vengeance or self-defense.
Watch the “how”
My dad cannot always understand my words, but he definitely comprehends my tone. How I say what I say is often most important. He responds so much better to anything I say if I am calm, gentle, and patient with my speech, and if I eliminate distractions as much as possible. Positive nonverbals communicate also; changing my position to make good eye contact, relaxed facial expression, and even the added touch of a hand on his arm or shoulder make a big difference.
There is nothing profound or new here, but it amazes me how hard it is to apply the right “how” in my everyday conversations with my dad – and with others. I have to intentionally focus on giving my full attention and my best presentation with the content. When I do manage to watch the “how”, our communication improves greatly.
Entering their world, knowing my triggers, and watching “how” I communicate deepens my connections with others.
So, are any of these true for you? How do you communicate well with the people in your life?
(You can read my first post about “life lessons learned from dementia” HERE.)
This was a wonderful reminder that how I listen is my choice. And listening should never be about me. It’s how I engage with others–and doing so the way you’ve chosen to do with your dad shows your choice to value and honor him where he is and what he deals with. It gives him dignity. I need to think more about the how that I listen–and question why I think more about me too much of the time than the person I’m listening to. Thanks, Ter, for wise words and a generous heart towards those who need to be heard.
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Thanks for the encouragement, dear friend. This is hard for me and my family. Processing some of it here adds value to the effort… even more if it can be helpful to others also. It means a lot to me that you take some of your precious time to read and comment. Love you!
Great article mom! Very good advice on communicating! I learned a lot 🙂 thank you!
Thanks so much, John! When your kids read your advice when they are old enough not to have to, it means an awful lot! 🙂 Much love to you, sweetheart! Can’t wait to see you! ❤