Compassionate communication and managing difficult behaviors

Brain Support Network had an exhibitor table at the December 2016 Alzheimer’s Association “Circle of Care” conference in Foster City.  Steven Russell staffed our exhibitor table, where he talked to people about brain donation and our local support group for those with non-AD dementias.  He also had the opportunity to attend a few of the break-out sessions.  Copied below are his notes from the break-out session on “Managing difficult behaviors.”

During the break-out session, a handout on “Compassionate Communication” was reviewed.  The handout offers “do’s” and “don’ts” of communicating with someone with memory impairment.  You can find my previous post from 2008 about this terrific handout:

Two key lines from the “Compassionate Communication” handout are:

“You can’t control memory loss, only your reaction to it.   Compassionate communication will significantly heighten quality of life.”

Words to live by as caregivers!



Steven’s Notes

Managing Difficult Behaviors
Session led by:  Alexandra Morris, Alzheimer’s Association
Circle of Care Conference, December 2016

Ms. Morris spent a good deal of time describing some typical dementia behaviors, why they occur and how to change or redirect these behaviors.

Ms. Morris reminded all of us that dementia behaviors are not deliberate. The care recipient has a disease and is exerting all of his or her energy to do the best they can with their disease.  Expending so much effort when trying to communicate and have the care recipient’s needs met can lead to “sundowning” at the end of the day.

Additional dementia behaviors can include repetitive questions, hiding/hoarding objects, delusions and hallucinations, suspicion, wandering and hitting. Besides exhaustion what leads to these behaviors? Here are some ideas.

The care recipient is a person who

– is an adult and doesn’t like being disrespected or under someone’s control

– is trying to get his or her needs met

– needs connection and purpose

– lacks insight into his or her condition

– is doing the best he or she can to deal with the cognitive challenges being experienced

– is  suffering from delusions or anxiety

– is irritated at something the caregiver said or did.

Ms. Morris gave us several tips to dealing with behaviors:

– Kindness versus Truth – “white lies” are better than anger, hurt or causing fear

– Appeal to the care recipient’s motivation (this may require practice to carry off successfully)

– Always say “yes” to a request.  If the outcome could endanger the care recipient, redirect to something safer as soon as possible.

– Don’t try to reason with or over-explain something to the care recipient

– If communication gets stuck, stop. Try physical movement to get unstuck (touch, gently direct the person towards where thy need to go).

– Tell a story – “I wondered about that…” “I’ll have to look into that…”

Probably one of the most difficult challenges happens when the care partner knows that a topic will agitate the person. Here are some tips:

– Determine if the conversation must be raised at all

– Interject with ” I have a question…”

– Change location

– Appeal to the person’s emotions, not the topic itself

– Use humor to defuse a charged situation

– Tell a “therapeutic fib” that helps move the conversation along without frightening the care recipient.

Every behavior has a purpose. You may have to put on your detective hat to determine what the purpose is.

– Let the issue go (“So what?”)

– Alter the situation to make it acceptable

– Keep responses and behavior slow, simple and calming

– Re-frame the issue/redirect to a more comfortable place

– Beg forgiveness rather than ask permission

Ms. Morris reminded the audience that as a care partner you can’t control memory loss, only your reaction to it. Remember that the care recipient’s disability is memory loss. Testing memory, lecturing the care recipient on their inability to find words or express appropriate emotions leads to suffering for all involved.  Instead refer only to the future (when the person with dementia mentions they want food, instead of saying “You ate an hour ago” say ” Why don’t I fix something for you in a bit?”).  Don’t use open-ended questions or try to initiate multi-step processes. Give the care recipient a simple choice between two items or direct their choice -“you look great in the green shirt.”

Finally, Ms Morris mentioned that the goal is to make life more calm and enjoyable for both you as care partner and for the care recipient. As you reassure the person remember that the care recipient cannot remember this reassurance. You’ll need to remind him or her each time.