Dementia is a complex condition that affects not only those living with it but their families and friends as well. People they have loved and shared life with for decades are displaying great changes in personality and behaviour. This can be deeply troubling for those seeing and responding to these changes.
Apathy is a relatively new caveat of dementia that experts are studying and addressing. Our article here addresses it in more detail.
If you believe that your loved one is displaying signs of apathy and withdrawal here are some approaches to engage with them in a gentle, focussed and strategic way. While it can be greatly discouraging to see your treasured one so changed, don’t lose hope, there are ways to bring about moments of connectedness and joy.
If your loved one seems to be withdrawing from activities that they used to love it may be out of embarrassment. If they no longer want to play poker or do their usual 1,000 piece puzzle, play simpler card games and start easier jigsaws. With tact and humour suggest that you all play a game from their youth, information that they may have a stronger hold over. Pick jigsaw puzzles with fewer pieces but just as bold and colourful themes.
Whether its starting a craft project or doing the washing up, start the process yourself and then hand them the tools. Grab a dishcloth and wash a plate, once they have the process going you can ask if they wouldn’t mind taking over. Break down big tasks into bite sized pieces, suggest cross stitching a sun, then a daisy and then a rose, building up a craft task in incremental stages.
Don’t underestimate the power of touch. Holding someone’s hand can be a gentle and powerful stabiliser for someone who may feel confused and scared. When guiding them from room to room or explaining something, if it’s safe and received, touch can bring them back to the present.
Have tunes from their youth jingling away merrily. Sound memories are some of the first memories we have. From 16 weeks in the womb we can hear and engage with sounds outside. Put on your loved ones favourite Sam Cook song or favourite jive. It’s likely you’ll see their eyes light up and the words come flooding back.
The signs that your loved one is engaging may be less overt than it once used to be. Their eyes may follow you around as you go about some errands, they may reach out and hold your hand. Even a small smile when you get home from work or you greet them may be a sign that they know you are there and they love you.
Give your loved one consistent eye content and try to have softer conversations. There is a tendency to lead and dominate the conversation to get it going but this can sometimes overwhelm. Allow long silences and pauses while your loved one is speaking so they can have the time to form the sentences and meaning they want to convey.
Of course it can be so disheartening when the person you have loved seems so greatly altered. Yet when it comes to engaging them in any form, understand that while their responses time and quality of response may be diminished that doesn’t mean they can’t hear or understand what’s going on. If you’re having a conversation with someone else, acknowledge their presence, provide them with the opportunity to be involved. Having a positive approach to what you think your loved one is capable of will likely lead to happy interactions.
Don’t be afraid to sit in silence. Bringing in too much stimuli whether its conversation, people or activities might be overwhelming. Be happy to rest in each other’s presence, perhaps holding hands or reading a book.