ALWAYS ask people with dementia for their help

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“He’s really combative,” the staff member complained, popping in my doorway. “Christian keeps slapping my hand away when I’m trying to wash his face.”

“Okay, let me come check this out with you,” I suggested. We walked back into Christian’s room, where he was pleasantly sitting on a shower bench. He didn’t seem “combative,” but I watched as my staff member took the washcloth and reached for his face. As her hand went up to touch him, he slapped it away. “See!” she cried. “Look what he’s doing.”

“Hang on,” I sighed. It seemed pretty obvious: he was afraid. Most people don’t like when someone they don’t know reaches for their face. “Christian, can you help me?” I asked. “Can you hold this washcloth and wash your face while I wash your legs?” Christian nodded and let me put the washcloth in his hand. I guided his own hand to his face and he began calmly washing while we cleaned the rest of him. 

ALWAYS ask people with dementia for “their help” with starting an activity. This could be anything: a shower, painting a birdhouse, a walk outside, completing a puzzle. 

When people are asked for help, they are much more likely to agree to do the task. 

If someone asks you, “Do you want to help me?” you think to yourself, “DO I WANT TO?” and that’s what you respond to. If someone asks you, “CAN YOU help me?” you respond to the “Can you” part. 

By making someone feel necessary and important, you are way more likely to get them to participate. 

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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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