communicating well


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.)

life lessons learned from dementia

sunsetHard experiences often teach the best lessons. Helping care for my elderly dad triggers childhood memories and reactions, fears for the future, and all the worst of me at times. The positive result is time to reflect and apply what I learn to other areas of my life. I have a lot to learn(!), so here are my first three lessons from my recent visit:

Even when I can’t “fix” it, I can still serve.

I would like nothing better than to cure my dad’s Parkinson’s and dementia, but I can’t. Medications, therapy, visits, prayers – other than a miracle – will not “fix” my dad. However, I can serve him. True service is determined by the one being served. He needs simplification in language and task, and continual and creative adjustments as his abilities change. He also needs my patience when he would prefer to do something (slowly!) himself and my respect even when he is confused or forgetful. Those last two are much harder for me.

Besides my dad’s illness, there are many things I’d like to change in this world: peace in place of violence, an end to inequities and inequalities, reconciled injustices, healing for hurts, desperation to encounter hope. I can’t fix those things either… but I can serve. I can go where I am called, give my best in all I do, and think of others rather than myself first – one day at a time. I can consider what will best assist others rather than what I want to do or what is easiest for me to offer.

I don’t have to be right.

I learned quickly that I cannot win an argument with a dementia sufferer. To the person with dementia, his perception is the only thing that is true. My dad’s delusions, paranoia, and denial are his reality. I cannot reason, argue, convince, or win him over to my perspective. I can only help him with what he believes.

That is often true with other people also. Even if we see the same scenario play out in front of us, our individual personalities, backgrounds, and values give us different perspectives of that incident. I can discuss, persuade, or pressure for hours, but I will never be the one who is right. I am learning – slowly – that I don’t always need to be right. My truth is often not the one truth in a situation. I can only help people if I care about and work with what they believe.

Attitude is powerful.

You would think I would know this one by now. I cannot change my father’s attitude, but I can change mine. I can look at his disease as a glass half empty and focus on all he has lost and who he was, or I can view the glass as half full and concentrate on what we can still enjoy together – neighborhood walks, quiet rests on a park bench, joy at watching fat rabbits in the yard, a New Mexico sunset streaked across the sky. He can sense my attitude, and he reacts accordingly.

He is not the only one affected by my choice of attitude. My family, friends, and co-workers also react to my half-empty or half-full mood. My actions may be good, but my attitude has the most powerful influence on his response.

These are the three lessons I am working on this week. I will share others in the weeks ahead, but this is enough for me for now!

How about you… which of these three is hardest for you?

What have you learned about serving others, caring about what they believe, or choosing the right attitude? 

who will he be today?

Old Man 14037671409_bbb2f90095_cOne day he seems almost normal – making jokes, telling stories, expressing gratitude, communicating lucidly.

The next day he feeds animals that don’t exist; is irrationally paranoid and fearful, freezes in the middle of thoughts and sentences, and cannot remember how to accomplish basic life tasks, how old he is, or even his daughters’ names.

I do not know which father I will greet each morning.

That is dementia.

I have decided it reminds me of living with a teenager – one moment “almost” mature and grown up: making wise decisions, communicating with confidence and respect, interacting as an adult peer. The next moment acting like a child again: thoughtless of action consequences, emotional or surly, insecure and overly dependent. A roller coaster of crisis and climax.

That is dementia.

I am learning again how to help. Stay calm and do not escalate the situation by attempting to reason or argue. Use a quiet, clear, slow voice, respect, and a gentle touch. Do not let his response trigger my past father/daughter issues; do not react defensively, with anger, or with impatience. Do not surprise him with a change of plans or expect him to learn something new or hope for consistency from day-to-day.

I long for a standardized to-do list that I can follow faithfully each day. A defined cause and effect that I can rely on. A “2 + 2 = 4” dependability.

Dementia does not offer that.

Instead I need to face each day with grace, flexibility, prayer, and love-motivated sacrifice of my wishes and desires.

Unlike rasing a teenage, there is no chance that this situation will improve, that he will grow out of this stage, that he will get better. I can only anticipate more of the same or something worse. He is not making progress; he is declining towards the end.

That is dementia.

Who will I greet in the morning? An elderly man. A child of God. A test of my character. My father.

How do you face the challenges in your life that will not get any easier? 


**If you are a person of prayer, please pray for my father and my family… wisdom for future decisions, strength for daily choices of love and sacrifice. Thank you.

“Ok, my dear. Thank you.”

terry and dadMy dad has never before called me “dear”.

That word brought tears to my eyes. Such a little thing, and yet a such big emotional impact.

We are spending a few weeks living with my dad – helping him with daily care, giving my sister a few moments of respite from her herculean job of care giving.

I was initially nervous about staying here with him. I was not sure about his abilities to function and interact. I worried that he might not want my help or that I would not know what to do. I haven’t lived close to my elderly grandparents or parents, so am not very comfortable with their lifestyle and needs.

My dad suffers from Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and alcoholism. My dad who was always the extreme self-made-man, strong character and body, intelligent, and absent of affection has become a very dependent, weak, forgetful… sweet and appreciative old man.

He certainly has his moments of confusion, frustration, and stubbornness, but in general, he is not the rough, tough, intimidating father he was before.

Caring for my dad is not easy. It requires patience, flexibility, research, and a lot of new perspective. It means different standards, norms, and routines that would have been unheard of in earlier years. Lucid conversations mixed with confused anxiety. Time, worry, initiative, firmness, creativity, and continual second-guessing and questioning decisions and choices.

Dad’s care is the epitome of living with tension – giving respect and still enforcing new restrictions, allowing for independence and restricting freedoms, offering choices while simplifying options, providing quality of life and ensuring safety, protecting privacy and dignity while also hovering with care.

I do not have any official training for the role of elder care-giver, but care giving is training me. I am learning to slow down… lowering my accomplishment expectations for each day, choosing my words carefully and enunciating as I speak, walking protectively at his side, moving with tenderness and intentionality. None of that is easy for me.

The most important lessons are a repeat of earlier experiences – living fully with the realities of each life-stage and finding contentment there. Just as I learned to overcome fears, serve others, and treasure special moments with infants, toddlers, teenagers, and adult children, I can do the same with my dad.

Every person is important. Every life is valuable. I consider it a privilege and a joy to care for him. I am willing to help my dad without expectation of getting anything in return, but every now and then, I receive a special gift – a “thank you” or a “dear” – from a special person who has nothing more to offer. It is enough.

What has been your experience is caring for elderly loved ones? Do you have any tips for me?

What was it I needed to do?

Photo credit: pni / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: pni / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Have you ever gone into a room and forgotten what you went in there to find? Ever forget someone’s name? Ever spend time looking for something because you couldn’t remember where you put it?

These are normal events for most people. At my age, however, they are becoming more worrisome. Some days I worry about losing my memory.

My dad has Parkinson’s and dementia and it saddens me to watch him struggle. I am reading books about dementia and memory loss diseases to learn how to help him, support those who do his care-giving, and understand some of his challenges.

I am also learning how to prevent or at least diminish the potential for my own memory loss. This past week, I read a great biography about a daughter caring for her dementia-affected mom: Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir. Besides communicating honesty, empathy and encouragement, the author, Martha Stettinius, offers great appendices of resources – one contains suggested antidotes for dementia.

This is a summary of what she writes:


Studies show that thirty minutes of daily physical activity (housework, walking, weight training, etc) may be our strongest weapon against Alzheimer’s and other memory loss diseases. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates growth of new brain cells.

Mental Stimulation

Add social community and mental stimulation to exercise and you have a great combination. Work, join a club, volunteer, travel, play games – especially crosswords or puzzles, learn to speak another language or play an instrument. Do these things in relationship with others and your brain continues to make connections too.

Eat Right

Nothing new here right? A good diet helps with a lot of things! Eating dark veggies and fruits, cold water fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts) also decreases the risk for memory loss. Vitamins E, C, and B12 may also help. Cut back on sugars and carbs wherever you can.

In addition, Stettinius suggests that you get checked if you have vision problems, sleep apnea or an infection that damages neurons. Researchers consider each of these as possible catalysts for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This all seems pretty basic and these are health tips I have heard before. I am just a bit more motivated to take them seriously each time I hear about someone else caring for a loved one who suffers memory loss… and that is often. There are 35.6 million people with dementia worldwide today and analysts expect that amount to almost double by 2030 to around 66 million and double again by 2050 to approximately 115 million.

I am going to do what I can so that I do not add to that number.

How about you? Do you need to change some habits? Or did I already ask you that?