Calls to our elderly loved ones at this time of year can often be fraught, we can feel guilty for not calling or visiting enough, or there may be other issues. Add dementia and a pandemic and things can feel incredibly stressful.
Whether your loved one lives in their own home or in a care home, due to the Covid restrictions, visiting has probably been very difficult since March 2020. Many people have found that that technology has helped their elderly relatives to feel less isolated. Of course, advertisers have capitalised on this by showing us happy grans and grandpas waving to their families and chatting away on every platform out there!
The reality for many though has been very different, my grandfather is 93 and very deaf in one ear. He lives in a flat, on his own, in a shelter housing scheme. It’s charming, only a couple of years old, with stunning views of Cannock Chase in the distance, a restaurant, hair salon, library and gym on-site. However, during the first two lockdowns, the residents have not been allowed to congregate, so they all have to stay in their flats and not mix. My grandad has never really been one for talking on the phone, now he is faced with daily calls from his two daughters and two grandchildren, and it annoys him, a lot!
After nearly 9 months of battling with the good old phone and several video calling platforms, I have put together some communication top tips from my own experience and our care staff. (We have a whole article about understanding the challenges of communicating with someone with dementia which you can check out here)
Hints & tips
First things first, keep expectations realistic! – Don’t except hour-long chats, that probably won’t happen. I can usually keep my grandad on the phone from 5 to 15 minutes. He doesn’t have dementia, but he can’t concentrate for long periods. After asking after the family and what everyone has been up, he has had enough. He often just doesn’t want to chat, it’s as simple as that, but he always answers the phone because otherwise, he knows we will panic. The next he knows carers are banging on his door checking that he hasn’t fallen!
Test – If it is their first-time using this type of technology, perhaps you may like to trial how your loved will interact with it. Try a short test so that they are not too flustered and know how it works. Video calls are not suitable for everyone, so it may be that you need to go back to phone calls.
Quiet – It sounds simple, but to get the most out of a telephone or video call you need to find somewhere nice and quiet. The most important thing is that there are no distractions on either end so you can all concentrate on the call.
Distractions – Make sure there are no other distractions in the room, for example, turn off the TV, music, computer, and your mobile phone notifications. Your loved one will be able to hear these as well and not know where they are coming from. Importantly, set your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ or turn off your ringtone.
Surrounds – You could put some familiar photographs of family members behind you to help with reminiscence. This would help as a visual cue when talking through how family members are and what they are doing.
Video calls – Consider things like lighting and noise, position yourself and your device at a desk or table to make sure your loved one can see you clearly. Do not sit in front of a window as this can cause a glare. Don’t try to move the camera around during the call as this can cause the viewer to feel disorientated. Ensure you are at eye level with the camera and try to position yourself to show your upper body and head.
Telephone calls may be more beneficial if the person with dementia is still at quite an early stage of the condition. Just be aware that it can become confusing if there are too many people on a call. It can also be difficult to gauge someone’s body language over the telephone and so can be hard to tell when they are becoming confused or distracted.
Speed – whether telephone or video calls, it is best to speak slowly in clear, short sentences. Give your loved one plenty of time to answer. You may need to talk to younger family members before the call about this, as younger children sometimes interpret and try to fill silences with chatter.
Questions – Avoid asking open-ended questions; these can be challenging for people with dementia. Be more conscious of cues, for example, if someone says they feel worried, you ask ‘What is worrying you right now?’.
Understanding – Very often if an older person or someone with dementia hasn’t heard what you have said, they will just agree with you. Try to make sure they have understood important things by reflecting or asking them a question about the information you have told them. Or mirroring what they have said, for example, if they say ‘I’m worried about what’s going to happen next’ you could say ‘What do you think will happen next?’ ‘I can see that you are worried about something – can you tell me what you are worried about?’ They will appreciate you listening, and the valuable reflection of their thoughts.
Reassurance – At the end of the call, agree a day and time call again. This will reassure them that they will hear from you again soon and provide them with something to look forward to. Remind them to write this information on their calendar or ask the person who supports them to write it down for them. Reminder alerts could also be set up on phones or other devices.
You may, however, find that neither telephone nor video calls are suitable for your loved one’s needs. They may find it too overwhelming or technology to be hard to deal with. In this case, it may be a good idea to send postcards or letters frequently, or even a postal package with meaningful items to your loved one. No one form of technology is the right answer for everyone, and just because one form of communication works this week, it may not work every week.