The BEST communication tip I have

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Here it is, the best dementia care communication tip I have for you. Although I’ve been using it (and tweaking it) for a long time now, I didn’t really “name” it until very recently.

Ellen had a problem. “Dad wants to go out walking around the neighborhood, like he used to do…but he’s so confused! I’m terrified that he’s going to get lost or hit by a car or something awful. How do I convince him he can’t walk around the block anymore?” I paused and thought for a minute. “You can’t convince him that he can’t walk by himself,” I said. “So you need to ask him if you can go with him.”

CAN vs. WANT

If Ellen were to ask her father if he “wanted” her to go with him, he’d almost definitely say no. No, he’d think. This was his walk, this was his thing—he didn’t need or want help! Instead, I suggested she rephrase her question: “Dad, CAN I go with you? I’d love some exercise!”

It’s a totally different question, even though the goal is the same: she wants someone to go with him so he doesn’t get lost. Now, though, it’s hisidea if he takes her along. He’s also very unlikely to turn her offer down, because she’s asking for his acceptance and assistance. Use “CAN” statements in dementia care, instead of WANT statements. For example, check out these comparisons:

  • Do you want to paint this birdhouse with me? vs. Can you help me paint this birdhouse?
  • Do you want to take a shower now? vs. Can you take a shower now, we are getting ready to go out?
  • I want you to help me set the table for dinner! vs. Can you help me set the table for dinner?
  • The doctor wants you to move to assisted living because of your dementia vs. Can you help me pick a great place for you to stay during your rehab?

The beauty of this phrasing is that you can really use it in any part of your life, dementia care or not! People are much more willing to do things if they feel like it was their idea to begin with.

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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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