The decline of a loved one’s cognition can often leave family members stumped for conversation topics. Here, Christine Foran writes about how a shift in her own approach has led to happier, more loving interactions with her mom.
My mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has been in a care home now for two years. She is lucky because she has a husband and three children who visit regularly. But it can be hard to come up with things to say. How do you have a meaningful conversation when memory seems to be a factor with every sentence?
It used to make me sad when I’d visit Mom and she’d forget that I’d been there. So I don’t focus on what she remembers anymore, because she, too, feels let down when she can’t tell us our names. Often, she doesn’t even remember that we’re related; instead, she introduces me as her “special friend.” But she smiles whenever she sees me, so I know that she remembers how she feels when we’re together. I take pride in creating moments of joy for her. I pull out my cellphone and play an Elvis song, to which she says, “You’re always so good to me!”
I realize that I have a comfort level that others don’t share. I am a registered nurse and a nursing instructor at the University of Calgary, and I’m used to teaching students how to converse with people with different needs. Simple things that we often forget to emphasize include looking at someone when you are speaking, smiling, and allowing enough time for someone to answer.
When I visit Mom, I greet everyone around her by name. There’s a men’s table in the dining room of her care facility, and, when I get up to refill my mom’s water glass, I ask the men how they’re enjoying their lunches. Mom observes all of this and tells me they should mind their own business! This then develops into a conversation between the two of us in which we both share a few laughs.
I also try to recognize when I’m feeling rushed or impatient, because Mom picks up on this and our visit is less comfortable. Sometimes, if I’m low on energy, I bring my dog, Zipper, in to help take the focus off of me (although you must first ask about the policies at your facility). Zipper brings immediate attention from the residents, and I can hear the conversations develop all around. People tell me about their own previous pets, or how smart my dog appears. I also find it interesting that, while Mom sometimes doesn’t remember who I am, she’ll ask me why I didn’t bring the dog.
Another way I focus on making Mom feel good is to play her music. On my cellphone I have created a playlist with her favourite songs. She used to sing the lyrics, but now she simply closes her eyes and smiles. Even when we walk, I’ll keep the music playing from my phone in my back pocket, and it brings smiles to the faces of others, as well.
Sometimes we’ll do an art walk, critiquing the paintings that hang in the hallways. This creates easy conversation topics: “Mom, do you like this painting? Which colour of butterfly do you like the best, the pink or the blue one?” Questions like these make for safe dialogue, as any answer she gives is correct, and, cognitively, she has to think about her answer and make a choice.
I do other easy activities with my mom, as well. We walk outside, try to sink the billiard balls in the game room with our hands, and partake in the facility’s planned recreational activities — Mom is more engaged in those activities when she knows that someone is there just for her.
Focusing on providing Mom with a loving feeling makes both of us feel good. I think those feelings last. Even if she’s unable to recall our visit, she felt loved when I was there. And that’s my goal. [ ]