August 12, 2021
7 Conversation Starters for Seniors Experiencing Cognitive DeclineMemory Care
When you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or cognitive decline, it can be heartbreaking to witness the toll it takes on everyday activities, such as the simple pleasure of conversation. They are adjusting to new challenges, and so are you, which can create quite a bit of hesitance and uncertainty for everyone. You may want to engage them but feel afraid or confused as to how you might do so effectively. Here, we’re highlighting some helpful ways you can approach the conversation with someone experiencing memory or cognitive decline, including interesting ideas for getting things started.
First, understand that patience is key. You may have to try a few different questions to get a conversation going, and you should allow adequate time for your loved one to think about their response. It’s often best, to begin with, simple starters and work your way up to deeper or more involved questions. Expect that they may become confused, frustrated, or upset at any point, in which case it’s OK to change the subject or allow time for them to regulate their feelings. Try not to let setbacks like these keep you from trying again later. You never know when the right question at the right time will spark a lively or meaningful conversation. Following are some practical examples.
1. Inquire about their childhood.
It may seem counter-intuitive to ask someone battling memory decline about the past, but in fact, it can be one of the most engaging topics. They might not remember what they ate for breakfast that morning, but perhaps they have lots to say about their school-age experiences or their adolescent years.
It’s amazing what memories Alzheimer’s and dementia patients can tap into sometimes, and it can be immensely meaningful for both of you: They have the pleasure of handing down these stories, and you have the gift of hearing about their life “back when.” It can even provide insightful glimpses into what specific experiences shaped the person they are today. So go ahead and dive into the past, touching on aspects of their childhood in which you are genuinely interested.
2. Hone in on special or stand-out memories.
Whether it’s the moment they got engaged, so-and-so’s unforgettable party, or the afternoon their firstborn came into the world, there are likely to be some memories that are just as vivid as the day they happened. Reminiscing about times like these can help make conversation both easy and enjoyable. Consider bringing up shared occasions that stick out in your mind, or ask about which moments are fresh in theirs. Discussing quality time spent with family and friends can bring out a happier, more engaged side of them that you’re not always accustomed to seeing. You might even grab some old photo albums and look through them together to spark fond memories and keep the conversation going.
3. Ask about their accomplishments.
There may come a time when seniors suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia don’t remember the names or faces of even their close loved ones, but maybe they still have recollections of themselves and their own accomplishments in life.
Was it a career milestone? Did they receive a particular award? Did they serve their country or build a business from the ground up? Ask about those achievements in life they are most proud of, and see if a conversation emerges. Find out what life lessons they learned from those experiences and what wisdom they’d want to pass on to future generations.
4. Bring up a friend from the past.
People come into our lives at all ages and stages of the journey, and talking about an old friend could stir up some positive memories and interesting stories. Are there people they haven’t seen in quite a while and wish they could reconnect with? Is there a particular friend who left a lasting impression or supported them during a difficult time? Again, photographs can help ignite these conversations, but so can open-ended questions about your loved one’s life.
5. Request their opinion on specific issues.
Regardless of their memory challenges, your loved one is still thinking, feeling human beings with plenty of opinions on all types of issues. Wondering how they feel about a certain political issue or want their advice on a current problem? Just ask. Invite them to speak their mind. Feeling heard by the people around them can be incredibly powerful and meaningful, and it’s your chance to get their take on the issues that matter to you. We’re all interested in our own unique ways, and we all have value to add to a conversation. Loved ones facing cognitive decline are no different. So don’t shy away from the idea of sussing out their views on the world of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
6. Touch on trips and travel.
Are there places they’ve visited that you’d like to know more about? Have they taken a recent vacation? Are they planning a trip somewhere soon? If your loved one likes to travel, this could be a top conversation starter for you. Or perhaps they’d like to hear about your recent or favorite trips, and you could fill them in on the details of your own excursions. You can remind them of places you’ve visited together or ask about their recommendations for sights to see. You may be surprised about what you learn and how engaged they become in this topic of conversation.
7. Explore hobbies and pastimes.
From favorite movies, shows, and music to unique hobbies and skills, there’s a wealth of conversation starters surrounding one’s personal interests. If your loved one was an athlete, ask about their experiences playing sports. If they enjoyed the arts, find out what inspired them and how they channeled their creativity. If they loved to cook, get the scoop on their favorite recipes. So much can be shared in conversation around one’s pastimes, even when memory challenges are present. Tap into what’s there and encourage their engagement with regard to the things that pique their interest.
These are just some of the ways to spur conversation with your loved one, and as long as you approach each effort with patience, compassion and authenticity, there are virtually endless opportunities to engage. Maybe not every attempt will be successful, and perhaps you’ll have to save some of these conversations for another day. But don’t underestimate the meaning and power of your desire to connect with your loved one, even when their memory challenges get in the way. There’s no telling how much you can gain from simple conversation starters that open a door to their mind.