Question: How do I know what my mom really feels about something?
Isn’t it frustrating when somebody keeps talking and talking and you can’t get a word in? We’ve all been there and, most likely, on both sides of the struggle. Sometimes you might talk to explain something or get a point across. Other times, you might talk to fill silence or to cover the feeling of uncomfortableness. The person on the receiving end might listen or they might get impatient. Regardless, they probably have something to say about the topic or have an opinion to express. They might interrupt or not. They might communicate back with facts or express their words with emotion if they feel passionate about the subject. When they do get the opportunity to participate in the conversation, they are most likely communicating with you in the same language, but not always. If you have ever traveled to another country, you probably experienced communicating with hand signals, pointing, or an attempt at native slang. No matter what, the attempt to communicate existed between you and the other person.
A person living with dementia has something to say too. They just might not communicate in your language or with specific content. They do communicate with feelings, sometimes using non-verbal communication.
My mom who was diagnosed with “most likely Alzheimer’s,” emphatically kept telling me she had given all of her property away. On the receiving end of this insistence, I tried to give her a dose of reality to get her off of this line of thought. I even went to the courthouse and printed out the records that she still owned her property. It didn’t work. My mom had always been an insightful person, so I knew “something” was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what. I started listening to her more closely and the emotions she was expressing. She was very agitated, frustrated, and worried. She was tense in her body language. I decided it had to be something with her money and looked through her checkbook. I found a large check written to the neighbor next door. After speaking with my stepdad, I found out they had been “loaning” money to the neighbor, except there had been no repayments for some time. The last check was for $6000. My mom most definitely was communicating with me, but not in a language I understood….until I decided to. If I had not, my mom and stepdad would have continued to suffer elder abuse at the hands of this supposed neighbor.
Dr. Allen Power in his book, Dementia Beyond Disease, refers to communication as meaning or the messages within our words or actions. He explains people going through cognitive changes receive and process information differently, such as my mom not being able to communicate about the money. How frustrated my mom must have been as she struggled with the situation on so many levels. Not just because of the neighbor, but also her recognition that she couldn’t figure out what to say or do to remedy the situation. She was living in a state of perpetual confusion. She did not deserve to live there. She needed somebody to understand.
Power provides some key pointers for non-verbal communication and how to listen. They include:
- Be present: actively listen and examine the environment, stop correcting word choices
- Suspend judgment: Put your feet in their shoes and realize their cognitive skills may be declining, but their intuitive skills are heightened
- Seek to understand: Many times the meaning is simpler than you might expect
- Look beyond the words: Accept expressions, body language, and emotions have meaning, it all counts
People living with dementia deserve to have their voice heard, no matter how they communicate. Please listen.