The importance of respect and understanding for someone with dementia

It can become increasingly difficult to connect and understand someone living with dementia, particularly as the illness progresses and the person they ‘used to be’ seems to drift away. Find out how you might be able to help the person you care about feel valued and respected

Could this be you?

You want to do as much as you can for your friend or relative who’s been diagnosed with dementia but you worry that:
• You won't be able to understand what they want or need.
• You might offend them without intending to.

Try not to worry. With a bit of sensitivity and common sense it might not be as hard as you think to continue understanding and respecting the person you know.

Why respect is so important

People with dementia have often led rich and productive lives. Maybe they've raised a family, had a rewarding career, or been known as a kind and caring member of their community. These achievements still matter just as much now as they always have. In fact, if the dementia diagnosis has knocked their confidence, they could matter even more. By being respectful, you remind them that their life still has value and meaning and you boost their feelings of self-worth, too.

Why understanding is so important

Dementia can make it increasingly difficult for someone to communicate their needs or express themselves. If they don't feel understood, many people become lonely and isolated and depressed. Sometimes, their frustration can erupt into angry outbursts and challenging behaviour which is very upsetting for everyone.

Seven ways to show understanding and respect

1. Little things mean a lot
How do they like to be addressed? If you've known the person with dementia since you were a child - or they were once in a position of authority over you – they may prefer you to call them 'Mr' or 'Mrs' rather than by a first name. If you're a regular visitor and have a house key, make sure you still knock on the door before letting yourself in.

2. Listen well
This takes time but it's one of the best gifts you can give. People with dementia may sometimes feel sad or worried which is perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. So don't try to 'jolly them along' or tell them to cheer up if they seem really low, just let them say what's on their mind.

3. Feelings are more important than facts
Even if what they're saying doesn't seem to make much sense to you, it probably does to them, so don't keep correcting them or asking them to explain. Instead focus on the bigger picture. How do they look right now as they're talking? Are their eyes bright, are they smiling or laughing, do they look tearful or anxious? Learn to read these clues and you might discover you understand them far more than you thought possible.

4. Give them choice
Wherever possible make sure they are able to make their views and opinion known about things that concern them. From what to eat for lunch, to whether they want to make a living will. Try not to make choices too complex. For example, don't ask 'what would you like for lunch?' as this can be too confusing. Instead say, 'would you prefer a chicken salad or a tuna salad?'

5. Step into their shoes
If you're in any doubt about how you're speaking or behaving, ask yourself; 'If I had dementia, would I want to be spoken to or treated in this way?' If the answer is 'no' ...don't beat yourself up, (you're doing your best) just try a different approach, take a look at Person Centred Care or go to our community forums and get some tips and support. If the answer is 'yes' carry on, you're doing a good job!

6. Encourage them to look their best
This could involve taking them to the hairdresser or barber’s, or helping them put on make-up or a favourite suit before going out. And don't forget to compliment them on how smart they look. Self-respect is often linked to appearance, and looking their best will encourage others in the wider community to respect them too.

7. Take a trip down memory lane
Remind them often of all they've achieved. Show them visual reminders too, including photographs, awards or certificates. Consider taking them to visit a place they used to work or any organisations they've contributed to, such as a favourite church or local charity. After all, they may struggle to remember what they have to feel proud about – but you don't!