“Mom, don’t you remember?”
I have years of conditioning to my mother’s communication style. Mom thinks about things deeply, questions everything, and like all of us, makes assumptions. Her thought process often ends up with her having a fight with you in her head. Suddenly she is mad, and you have no idea why. Or she is thinking about something and will ask you a question that has no context because you have not been privy to her thoughts. You might be thinking this is dementia. No, she has done this my entire life. It used to drive dad crazy, and it drives me bonkers.
And yet, I spent a lot of time with mom over the holidays. For the first time, I noticed she did not remember something we had talked about days ago, and she repeated something she had already told me. My first thought was, “Oh, there is so much going on over the holidays, she is just overloaded.”
But I am painfully aware that mom is 86 and the statistics for the onset of dementia rise dramatically at 85. Don’t get me wrong, her mind is still sharp, but there are signs that she is slowing down. And I know one of her biggest fears is dementia. When I said more than once in a conversation, “Mom, don’t you remember?” she got very quiet. And I thought “OK, those are words you can’t use anymore.”
I first realized the importance of carefully choosing words and phrasing things in a new way, after reading ‘How to Say It to Seniors’, by David Solie, MS, PA. Part of the life work of Mr. Solie is helping people understand the communication styles that work best with our elderly.
I read the book early in our caregiving journey and I am forever grateful to him because it changed the way I interact with mom. It taught me communication skills that help mom feel more in control of her life and helped me understand why conversational tangents are normal after age 70.
Language matters. Not just what you say, but how you say it. I know because I’ve said both these things to my mother. “Mom, don’t you remember”? and “Mom! Don’t you remember!?!”
Words have power. Words have energy. Energy in their sound, frequency and from the example above, the way in which we say them. And once said, you can’t take the energy back. Science backs this up with experiments that demonstrate words have the power to affect emotions and actions.
It’s time to modify my communication style again. “Mom, don’t you remember?” “Mom we talked about this already.” These are words that make her feel bad and frightened. Which brings me to where I am today. Trying to figure out how to stop this automatic response. Trying to figure out new words that gently acknowledge our conversation while making her feel validated and heard.
I’ve decided it starts with taking a breath and holding back the automatic responses. It is not easy to make this mental switch. It takes time and hard work. When I’m not sure what else to do, I ask an expert.
Suggestions from Amy Matthews of Engaging Alzheimer’s.
“It is harder to multi-task as you get older, so you do forget that you talked about something a couple of days ago. And your attention span is different. Incidents like this don’t necessarily mean it’s dementia.”
- When incidents like this happen, put it on yourself, it is less scary. Instead of saying “Mom, don’t you remember?’ you can say, “I remember when we talked about that, or am I wrong?”
- Let the person be your guide. Did your loved one get defensive, get quiet? These negative reactions tell you it’s time to switch your language and put yourself in their place: “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
- People fear dementia. In the moment of a negative reaction to your words, seize it and make the fear normal. “I know I get concerned because I forget stuff. It’s normal if I haven’t gotten enough sleep.”
- Be careful not to overreact. Obviously forgetting and repeating are a cause for concern but it can be caused by many things other than dementia: stress, sleep deprivation, medicine.
- If you do say something that gets a negative reaction, don’t beat yourself up. Take a deep breath, let yourself off the hook, and try a different approach next time.
How would you handle this type of situation? Please leave me a comment and I will compile them and share.
Additional reading on the power of words:
- The Power of Words
- “This will blow your mind, the secret power of words.”
- “Words Can Change Your Brain”
- 8 Things Not to Say to Your Aging Parents
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.