Keeping in touch with those living with dementia

Reviewed by Dr Sarah Gunn

Connection with loved ones is a basic human need, but if your parent or loved one is living with dementia or mild cognitive impairment, it can be a very challenging task – especially from a distance.

While staying connected with family and friends can bring immeasurable joy and comfort to people with dementia, they may struggle to initiate contact and to communicate. However, with the right tools, techniques and preparation, keeping in contact with someone with dementia from a distance need not be so difficult and can be a positive experience with huge benefits for both you and your parent or loved one.

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This article will teach you techniques and considerations to help you stay connected using video technology, as well as other options for ways to stay in touch and enhance their lives.

Benefits of video calling for people with dementia

As Maya Angelou once famously said, ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ This is never more true than for people with dementia. Although someone with dementia may often forget the specific content of a conversation, they may well remember how they felt.

Therefore, to make the most of keeping in contact with someone with dementia, it’s best to ensure the way you connect facilitates and focuses on feelings not facts.

Video calling facilitates this in several ways:

  1. Visual cues: Seeing the person on the other end of the call can help trigger memories and emotions that might not come up in a traditional phone call. Seeing a familiar face and surroundings can bring back happy memories or a sense of familiarity.
  2. Nonverbal communication: Video calls allow for nonverbal communication, such as smiling and body language. These cues can convey emotions and feelings that may not be expressed in words, make conversations more animated and evoke reciprocal feelings in the person with dementia.
  3. Shared experiences: Video calls can facilitate shared experiences, such as watching a movie or looking at old family photos together. This can help build a sense of connection and remind the person with dementia of happy times from their past. It also facilitates access to family events and celebrations, such as birthdays, even if they are unable to attend in person.
  4. Person-centered communication: Video calls can add new ways to focus on the person’s emotions and feelings during the call. For example, telling the person how well they look or commenting on their outfit can be a source of pleasure and positive feelings for the recipient.

As well as facilitating more emotive and meaningful connections, video calling has further benefits for keeping in touch with people with dementia:

Spotting problems: As the person making the call, you can pick up valuable cues from the way the person presents, their facial expressions, and their general demeanour. This can be reassuring for you, or may mean you can spot potential care and well-being related problems earlier and intervene.

Improved mood: Seeing a person on a video call can help improve the person’s mood and reduce feelings of low mood and anxiety. These feelings are common in people with dementia, and can be very debilitating so any boost to mood is welcome.

Cognitive boost: A video call can provide a form of mental and visual stimulation. This can be really important if a person doesn’t get a lot of stimulation and activity during a typical day.

Feeling valued: Seeing their loved one and their responses can also provide a sense of being valued for the person with dementia, as they can feel like they are still able to contribute to their social network and maintain relationships.

Tips for successful video calling with people with dementia.

Before making a video call, it is worth considering a few things to avoid frustrations and ensure that it’s a good experience for everyone involved.

Practice makes perfect.

If the person with dementia or their caregiver isn’t familiar with video calling, it might be helpful to have some practice calls when you or someone else is present to show them how it works. This will depend on their abilities and level of dementia, but it’s worth starting early and getting them (and their caregiver if they have one) used to the technology. A simple written or illustrated list of what to do can be really helpful too.

Use Drop-in devices.

If navigating technology is an issue, there are also devices available that offer ‘drop-in’ calling which means that when you call, you simply appear on a screen without them having to press a button or take any action. These devices can be placed in a convenient location where the person is likely to be, like next to the TV. Another great thing about these drop-in devices is that they’re always plugged in, so you don’t have to worry about recharging them. One less thing for them to remember!

Choose the right time.

Schedule the call for a time when the person is most alert and awake (you may also want to set a reminder for the person you’re calling, to jog their memory). Mornings are usually better than afternoons or evenings. Be aware of medication side effects that may affect their cognitive ability. Make sure it is a time you can fully concentrate on the call, otherwise you can give the impression that you are not paying attention or seem aloof, which may be distressing for a person with dementia.

Minimise distractions and noise.

Find a quiet and well-lit place to have the call. Close windows, turn off the TV or radio, and put devices or anything that might ‘ping’ on silent.  Use a headset or earphones with a built-in microphone to improve the sound quality and reduce background noise. All of this will reduce competing information during the call, and help the person focus on you.

Tailor your language and tone.

Speak slowly and clearly, with a positive tone, using short and simple sentences. Avoid using complicated language, giving too much information in one go, or asking multiple questions at once. After asking a question, be patient and understanding if the person with dementia takes longer to respond or seems confused. Give them time to process what you’ve said, and don’t rush them. Silence is ok – it can just mean you’re giving them space to process.

Use visual aids.

Using visual aids like photos, drawings, or objects that are familiar to the person can help prompt memories and facilitate a more emotional connection. Prepare your visual aids in advance and have them ready during the call, or use items that are readily available. Just make sure the visuals are clear and simple, and don’t overwhelm the person with too much information at once.

Engage in familiar conversations.

Talk about family and friends, and what you have been up to. See if you can involve other family members in the call to make it even more enjoyable. Take time transitioning between different topics or people on the screen. Be patient if the person with dementia takes longer to respond or seems confused – just give them time and talk them through everything.

Avoid correcting.

It’s not a good idea to correct someone with dementia or tell them they are repeating themselves. Correcting them can make them feel frustrated or embarrassed, and may cause them to disengage from the conversation. Instead, focus on the emotions and feelings being expressed, and respond with empathy and support. If necessary, gently redirect the conversation to a different topic, rather than correcting or interrupting the person.

Alternatives to video calling for people with dementia

If video calling proves too challenging in some way, or if your loved one with dementia doesn’t have the right set up, there are other ways to keep in touch from a distance in a meaningful way.

Letters and postcards: Sending postcards or letters to someone with dementia, or even a postal package with meaningful items and a letter, can be a thoughtful gesture that they’ll appreciate and keep. It’s an easy and familiar way to keep in touch, without requiring any technical know-how. Plus, you can make it more personal by adding photographs to a letter. These photos can be cherished keepsakes that they can look back on whenever they like. Although sending letters or cards doesn’t offer the opportunity to see the person’s face and check up on them in real-time, it’s always nice to receive something in the mail.

Phone calls: Phone calls are a simple and convenient way to stay in touch with a relative with dementia in real time. It’s a method they are likely to be familiar with and it’s easy to do from anywhere.

Text messaging: If your loved one with dementia is comfortable with text messaging, and they are still able to navigate their phone, then this is another option. Depending on how advanced their dementia or cognitive issues are, text messaging may not be the best means of communication as it requires a different kind of cognitive effort to understand and respond to messages. Individuals with dementia or mild cognitive impairment may struggle to understand the context and meaning behind written messages, leading to confusion and misunderstandings. In addition, they may have difficulty typing or reading small text on a phone screen, which can cause frustration and stress. As with all of these methods, think carefully about the person you’re keeping in touch with, and what will work best for both of you.

In summary

The best way to stay in touch with a relative with dementia will depend on their individual needs and preferences, as well as your own availability, abilities and location. It may be helpful to experiment with several different methods and schedules to see which ones work best. One thing is evident: staying in touch with loved ones is crucial for a person with dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Maintaining positive connections can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, while regular social interactions can also provide important mental stimulation and improve their engagement with you and the world.

Common questions

Why is staying in touch with someone with dementia so important?

Staying in touch with someone with dementia is incredibly important. First and foremost, regular social connection with their loved ones promotes feelings of purpose, pleasure, and enjoyment. Additionally, staying connected reduce feelings such as low mood, isolation, and anxiety, providing emotional support and reassurance.

How do you interact with someone living with dementia?

  • Use clear and simple language. It is important to speak slowly and clearly, using short and simple sentences. Avoid using complex language that may be confusing or difficult to understand.
  • Avoid correcting or arguing. People with dementia may have difficulty remembering things accurately or expressing themselves clearly. Correcting or arguing doesn’t solve the issue, and can cause frustration, confusion and agitation.
  • Nonverbal communication is important. Smiling and nodding and can help convey warmth. This can help the person with dementia feel more at ease and comfortable during the conversation.
  • People with dementia may take longer to process information or respond to questions so be patient. Allow them enough time to understand and respond and avoid rushing or interrupting them.
  • Using familiar topics, such as family, hobbies, or interests, can help the person with dementia feel more connected and engaged. Visual cues, such as family photos, can also help trigger memories and help communication.

What not to do when video calling someone with dementia?

  • Don’t use technology that is more complicated than necessary – simplify what the person needs to do as much as possible, automate where you can, and practice or provide guides where automation is not possible.
  • Don’t ‘overload’ the screen. People with dementia may become overwhelmed by too much visual stimulation, such as multiple people, especially changing people on screen too quickly. Busy backgrounds will not be helpful. Take you time, and talk through what’s going on as you go.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues. People with dementia may communicate through facial expressions or body language, sometimes more than words. They can provide valuable insights into the person’s feelings and needs.

What is the most important part of any interaction with someone living with dementia?

The most important part of any interaction with someone living with dementia is the emotional content of the conversation. Approach them with empathy and respect. People with dementia may experience confusion, memory loss, and changes in their ability to communicate, which can be frustrating and disorienting. By approaching them with kindness, patience, and understanding you can help create a positive and supportive environment that promotes their well-being and quality of life.

Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of the person with dementia and trying to understand their perspective, feelings, and needs. Be sensitive to their emotions, acknowledge their experiences, and respond with warmth and compassion. Showing empathy can help reduce feelings of isolation, anxiety, and frustration, and create a meaningful connection.

Respect involves treating the person with dementia as a valued and worthy individual, with their own unique experiences, preferences, and strengths. Listen to the persons opinions and desires. Show respect and preserve their dignity and autonomy. This promotes their sense of self-worth.

Terminology toolkit

Dementia – Dementia is a broad term used to describe a decline in cognitive function that interferes with a person’s daily life. It can affect memory, thinking, behaviour, and emotion, and can ultimately lead to a loss of independence. Dementia is often associated with ageing, but it can also be caused by other factors such as brain injury, infections, or chronic diseases. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are other many other types, such as vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.

Mild Cognitive Impairment – Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) refers to a decline in cognitive function that is noticeable but does not interfere with day to day activities. It can sometimes, but does not always, progress to dementia. MCI can affect memory, attention, language, and decision-making skills, amongst others. While the exact causes of MCI are not yet fully understood, some potential factors include brain changes due to ageing, medical conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise or poor diet.

Drop in calling – Drop-in calling refers to a feature of certain communication devices that allows the caller to connect with the receiver instantly without the need for the receiver to answer or accept the call. The feature is particularly helpful for people with dementia, who may have difficulty operating technology or may not remember to answer incoming calls. With drop-in calling, the receiver can simply appear on the screen of the device without taking any action. Examples of devices that facilitate drop-in calling include Amazon Echo Show, Google Nest Hub, and Facebook Portal.

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