I told you there would be more. Here is the second part to what will be a recurring post about the unexpected benefits of dementia as long as I can find any. Even with dementia, there is still much to enjoy during conversation. (To read “Upside of Dementia, I: New Relationships,” click here. To read “Upside of Dementia, III: Preserving Family History,” click here.)
A Successful Topic of Conversation
Conversing with a loved one with dementia can be a frustrating experience. They don’t remember anything for very long, so frequently the conversation is a series of the same questions and comments over and over again. Sometimes, too, you just weary of having to repeat and explain every comment you make because it’s never understood the first time. Conversation just becomes too arduous, and the silences become more frequent.
If you could only steer it to a subject that could last for more than two exchanges, you would be thrilled.
Well, the long term memory is strongest and sticks around the longest. That means that your loved one’s most secure ground is their childhood. This is a wide open territory to mine when conversation lags or becomes frustratingly repetitious.
Start with What You Know
There is much I know about my mother’s life before she met and married my American father during World War II. She reminisced about her childhood over the years—sleepwalking, having scarlet fever, her mother’s strange behavior, rats in the coal cellar. We heard she was sent to a convalescent home at age nine to help cure her of stammering and her nervous disposition. Until very recently, she still managed phone conversations and spoke frequently with her last remaining sibling in England. She and my uncle frequently triggered each other’s memories of their childhood, so there were fresh influxes of information from time to time. Mom also at one time wrote a 60-page autobiography, copies of which she distributed to us four children.
All of this gives me the foundation to gather additional details that I am interested to know. More importantly, it gives my mother the opportunity to be the expert and bring richness to a conversation that adds not only to family history but also a fuller understanding of her.
Then Ask for More Details
For example, I knew that my mother and her siblings were evacuated out of London during the war. All parents were exhorted to allow their children to leave the city that was expected to be the main target of bombings. Children went off with their gas masks, some clothes, and a day’s supply of food. But they didn’t go as family, they went with their school class and their class teachers to be distributed to villages in the country. Therefore, none of my mother’s siblings saw each other or their parents very much for years. It always seemed horrible to me that these children were not only away from their parents, but did not even have the comfort of being with a brother or sister at a time their country was at war.
So during one of my most recent visits, I asked Mom how old her younger brothers were when they were evacuated and whether they were scared. She surprised me by saying that the boys thought it was all a great lark and loved the families they were placed with. We figured out that they were eleven and nine years old at the time, given that she would have been fourteen. Her older sister was old enough at sixteen or seventeen to be allowed to stay in London. We talked about how hard it must have been for parents to send their children away for years in order to keep them safe. As I already knew, their home was bombed out. This day, though, Mom told me that their home went with the very first bombing of London.
Conversation Rating: A+
Altogether, our conversation was much more valuable than talking about the garden or how my husband and I are keeping busy in our recent retirement. More importantly, it is a topic in which my mother is the authority, not the confused ‘patient.’