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How do I talk on the phone with mom now that she has dementia? We baby boomers are a very mobile generation. Not many of us live in the same city or town we grew up in, which means most of us are trying to stay in touch with aging parents who live far enough away that we can’t just drop by to see how they are.
For many families, the primary means of contact is still the telephone, because using Skype and Facetime are newer skills. But when a parent is experiencing dementia, or even mild cognitive impairment, having a good phone conversation becomes difficult. So how can we have positive phone experiences with someone who has dementia?
Of course, we expect that, due to memory loss, people who have dementia will have trouble bringing to mind what they did earlier that day, let alone what’s been happening during the past week. And, we know that how much they can remember will diminish as time goes on. At first, you may find that you can ask leading questions by including a fact or two (i.e. “Dad, did you have coffee with your friend George this morning?”). During the earlier stages, memories might become available through being prompted.
However, not only do we need to keep in mind that recalling events will become impossible, we also need to keep in mind that a parent may tell us that something happened when it was actually dreamed, because people with dementia can become unable to distinguish between dreamed events and real. In any case, we need to be careful not to react as if they are purposefully trying to mislead us. Our purpose on the phone should be to communicate our desire to spend time with them, to express love and caring, not to gather information. We shouldn’t expect factual information from someone who is losing memory and rational thought. What someone with dementia says has happened is possibly true, but not necessarily true. So don’t correct them, or question the validity of what they say. Focus on what matters: communicating that you’re enjoying talking with them.
Treat a phone call as your chance to brighten your parent’s day. When he becomes unable to recall his own experiences, use your calls as a chance to tell him what you’ve been up to the past week. Recall and retell a favorite memory from your childhood or your times together that you know are happy times for him, too. Use your phone call to sing songs with your mom, or her favorite hymns, or tell her stories of things she did for you that enriched your life. Your goal should be to give your loved one the experience of having your full attention and caring by recalling happy times for them that they cannot recall on their own.
Before you call, write down several incidents from your own week that you know they will enjoy hearing about. You’ll be able to stay on the phone longer, avoid awkward pauses, and truly communicate that you want to spend time with them. Every time they return to asking about the weather, or how you are, take that as your cue to share another anecdote. When someone with dementia does this, they are trying to keep the conversation going, not communicate that they aren’t interested.
Most importantly, remember that moods seem to last longer for people who have dementia than for those of us with healthy brains. If you take care of providing the stories and anecdotes for your conversation, your loved one will experience companionship and love – and not feel that they have failed at conversation. They will retain a sense of being loved that will last long after you hang up.