How to engage with someone who doesn’t respond

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Belma’s eyes closed lightly as she was transferred from her bed into her wheelchair and brought down the hall for breakfast. She was peaceful, but did not seem to respond much to the world around her. At times her hands were restless as they sat in her lap: picking at the chair, a blanket, or something on the table in front of her.

Belma had aphasia, which meant that she often did not speak. She did indeed “communicate,” as she would sometimes smile, nod, or touch a person who was speaking to her. Sometimes Belma would say a word or two, and it was almost always in context, which meant that she did generally understand what was happening around her.

On this day, I wanted to try something new. Belma’s family did a good job of finding little things to occupy her time: greeting cards with interesting pictures on them, TV shows, music, soft blankets with zippers and buttons. Belma had never been one for animals in her younger years, but as her dementia progressed, she found great comfort in pets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU1hol5oo58?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1&origin=https://safe.txmblr.com&wmode=opaque&w=540&h=304]

I brought in the pet that Hasbro had sent me to try it out. My favorite pets to give to people with dementia are Memorable Pets, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to try out this animatronic cat that Hasbro had sent.

The cat moved and meowed, responding to light and touch. For someone who could use another level of interaction, this cat was a good fit. Belma squinted at the cat, trying to understand what it was. She began to pet it, slowly at first, and a smile moved across her face. The cat meowed and Belma’s smile grew a little bigger. 

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4 thoughts on “How to engage with someone who doesn’t respond”

  1. I bought my mom one of these cats 2 years ago. She absolutely loves it! She knows it is not real but it is a comfort to her. She loves to talk to it and rub it

  2. Rachel do you have any ideas for managing the holiday season when one family member lives in a Dementia care community and can no longer handle the drive and bustle of a holiday dinner at the family home but we don’t want to abandon her for the day and it’s not welcome or feasible for the whole large family to descend on the community staff!

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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