Can I Discuss Memories with Someone Who Has Dementia?

What can you talk about when your loved one has dementia? How do you get a conversation going? These are questions that stem from a singular goal. You want to cultivate that love and connection, and part of that is accomplished by drawing on your shared past. At the same time, it can be a devastating and lonely feeling when you witness cherished memories disappear in your partner, your parent or friend.

So how do you work around that elephant in the room — the loss of memory — when spending time with a loved one with memory loss? In the following, we’ll share some insights to help you find your footing when you visit a loved one with dementia.

Don’t quiz them about the recent past

We get the urge to check in on your loved one. They’re living in a new place and and it’s what families do. But don’t get into the habit of quizzing them about their day. Questions like, What did you have for lunch? How was physical therapy? Did Devin come to visit? may seem innocent and normal. But you’re asking them to recall details they may not be able to access. This can make their anxiety spike, while also cultivating a sense of failure. As a result, you won’t have a positive visit. In the long term, you even start to associate your presence with stress and anxiety.

Share your stories and memories

When spending time with your loved one, it’s OK to bring things up that happened in the past. In fact, they will enjoy hearing your memories. A good way to ease into this is by talking about a shared experience from your perspective. Talk about the thing you used to do together, and how it made you feel. Bring it to life by using your senses, including sights, smells and sounds. This lets your loved one take in the experience without the pressure to recall details. And it just may help ease them into a trip down memory lane.

For more about this, watch our insights video, Do You Remember?

Focus on the “spark”

It’s not unheard for a dementia patient to forget your name, or how you fit in to their life. This can be hurtful and come as a shock, especially if you’re talking about a life partner or parent. But don’t lose heart. You and your visit still matter, more than they can ever tell you. Here at Arthur’s, we get to know the clients well on an emotional level. We can see the change in their spirit and demeanor when a family member walks in the room. That has something to do with the fact that memory is deeply rooted in emotion. Even if they can’t come up with the specifics, the sight of your face and sound of your voice can still set off that spark of recognition, and connects them to a deeper part of themselves. When you become aware of these moments and consciously appreciate them, it will set the stage for a positive visit.

Read more in Memory Loss and Family Relationships.

Sing a song

For some time, it’s been clear that music has a special power over people who have memory loss, and we’re starting to understand why. According to research, music memory stays intact in the wake of Alzheimer’s and dementia, because the melodies, lyrics and rhythms are preserved in a different region of the brain. Research shows that patients who forget the names of family members can sing lyrics with perfect recall. Even if you’re not from a musical family, think of ways to incorporate playing a few familiar-to-them melodies at the next visit. Stream some tunes from their youth or their favorite musical, and try having a family singalong. Music is also shown to decrease stress and agitation, which itself sets you up for a happy visit.

Learn more about the power of music in Songs to Remember.

Keep in mind that everyone with dementia experiences things differently. If you try any of these tips and they become upset or agitated, don’t be hard on yourself. Gently apologize and move on to something else.

Learn more about how we provide specialized care in our series “Insights from Arthur’s” featuring educational videos from Arthur’s Director of Development and Senior Care Consultant Deb Nygaard.