When a person is diagnosed with dementia it can feel like a death. The person you once had a relationship with, based on shared memories and experiences, seems to be slipping away as their ability to make new memories slowly disappears. How do you still engage, when the means by which you once connected seems to be fading? A person with a dementia diagnosis may be losing skills and abilities. However, just as you continue to have a desire to connect, your loved one’s need for meaningful connection also remains. They may no longer be able to initiate these connections and the means of connection may need to be different. A shift in your thinking may be required. Studies have shown that keeping someone with dementia active and engaged promotes a sense of self-worth, and can even keep that person independent longer. The search for new ways of connecting now begins.
According to the Victorian Department of Health, dementia may result in seniors feeling more anxiety and stress, becoming more sensitive to their physical and social environments, and relying more on their senses for cues about what is going on around them. Conversely, using the senses as a means of engagement has been linked to lessening of senior’s anxiety and depression. Researchers and care partners are discovering that sensory experiences created through physical activities, art or music therapy, results in positive emotions for those with dementia. Emotions that they may have lost the ability to experience, with progression of the disease. You can simply make use of items in a person’s environment to stimulate their senses: taste, touch, vision, hearing, and smell. Learning new ways to connect can help both the caregiver and their person with a dementia diagnosis become partners in this new journey.
Almost a century ago, Dr. Maria Montessori developed an educational method to use with children to consider their needs and capabilities to create lesson plans, helping them explore their world through their senses. Activities are self-directed, at a level that challenges but doesn’t frustrate. Teachers act as guides working alongside their students. One of the hallmarks of the Montessori Method: engaging the senses to help people rediscover and connect with the world around them in meaningful ways, translates well when working with individuals living with dementia. For this reason, the Montessori Method is becoming increasingly popular and is well suited to working with adults with dementia. Use of this method and engaging through the senses can be a path to reconnect with your loved one in a new and meaningful way. You don’t need special training or even special equipment to use suggestions from this method.
As you consider new ways of connecting, try some of the following suggestions:
Listening and singing along to music
Puzzles (look on line for adult puzzles with larger, easier to see and easy to handle pieces)
Baking cookies (even just being in the room is a delight to the sense of smell)
Working in the garden (Feeling the soil between your fingers! And experiencing the lovely smell of flowers)
Watching birds at a bird feeder
Admiring art work (hanging in a museum or portrayed in an art book)
Flower arrangement (silk or real)
Tips for presenting activities:
- Lay items out in a non-cluttered work space, set out only items that are needed
- Demonstrate and work with the person, ask them to join you
- Praise all attempts, it’s the connection that matters, not the accuracy
For more information about using the Montessori Method, check out the following resources:
Tom and Karen Brenner: Montessori gerontologists and authors of You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care.
Creative Connections in Dementia Care by Rev. Katie Norris and Jennifer Brush (Brushdevelopment.com)
By Melanie Cahill, MS, CCC-SLP