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Dignity and Respect

Wednesday May 29, 2024

Dignity is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “the quality or state of being worthy, honored or esteemed.”  Respect is defined as, “to consider worthy of high regard: esteem.” Every person is entitled to dignity and respect as a human. We want these things for ourselves. For those with memory impairment, the desire for dignity and respect is still there.

We often hear that caring for someone with memory impairment is like caring for a child. While there certainly can be some similarities, the two are vastly different. The main difference is that we should honor the adulthood of those with dementia, treating them with dignity and respect and keeping in mind their lived experience.

A person living with dementia is an adult. They have lived a full life and had a lifetime of experiences. They are not a child who needs to be disciplined or spoken to as a child. They were once a fully independent person, who did not need assistance with daily tasks. They did not have someone telling them what to do. It is hard for a person with a broken brain to understand that they are no longer fully independent.

What does it look like to show dignity and respect to someone living with dementia?

Here are things to avoid:

  • Do not use a sing-song voice. We speak to children with higher-pitched, sing-song voices because children are drawn to and learn easily from this kind of voice. This is not the case for those with dementia. It usually just appears patronizing.
  • Do not baby talk. Even though the person with dementia might not understand long conversations or multi-step instructions, this does not mean you should revert to baby talk. For example, “Do you need to tee-tee?” You can speak in more simple phrases without baby talk. Instead, “Do you need to use the restroom?”
  • Do not use “we” instead of “you.” At times, you may hear yourself say something like, “Do we need to go to the bathroom?” or “Our head is hurting today, so we aren’t in a good mood.” The person living with dementia has their own body, separate from yours. Even though you may be together all the time, and it may feel like you are in charge of their body, allow them their bodily autonomy and avoid “we” statements.
  • Do not use terms of endearment like “Honey” or “Baby.” It is one thing if you are caring for your spouse, and you have always called them “Honey.” But if you are caring for your parent and referring to them as “Honey” or “Dear,” this can come off as speaking down to them. Instead, use the person’s name or given title (“Mom” or “Dad”).
  • Do not talk about the person in front of them. It is easy to end up on a phone call with the nurse from the doctor’s office and find yourself telling the nurse all of your loved one’s issues while your loved one is in the car with you. Or you have family dinner, and someone says, “How is Uncle Frank doing?” And you end up talking about all the odd things that he has done recently while he is within earshot. Would you like someone to talk about you and the things that you are doing as if you aren’t even there? Nope!
  • Do not look for faults. People with dementia will say and do “wrong things.” It is easy to correct them. But being correct doesn’t matter, and constant correction will lead to bad feelings between you and your loved one. Learn to let “wrong” things go and focus on the person or intent behind what was said. For example, your loved one says, “I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in years.” When, in fact, you gave them a home-cooked meal last night that you spent over an hour making. Correcting them won’t help because their brain cannot remember. It’s not that your meal wasn’t good or that they aren’t grateful. They cannot physically remember. Say, “That’s a great idea! I could use a home-cooked meal tonight, too. Would you like meatloaf or spaghetti?” And move on!

Here are some things to do:

  • Keep the relationship in mind. You are not the parent of your mom or your husband or your sister. Yes, your roles have changed, but you are not the parent, even though you may feel like it at times.
  • Give choices when possible. When we do not allow those with memory impairment to have some control over their days in whatever ways we can, we are not preserving dignity or showing respect. Give options when possible and let the person make choices. Next month’s blog post will go more in-depth on this!
  • Include them in conversation. Just because the person has a broken brain does not mean that they cannot participate in conversation. Talk to them. Even if their conversation does not make sense, still include them in conversation, as appropriate.
  • Allow independence when possible. Just because someone has memory impairment does not mean that they need everything done for them. They may still be able to do many things for themselves, well into the disease process. Everyone is different. Observe your loved one to see what they might still do independently.
  • This one seems obvious, but when the conversation gets confused or repetitive, we tend to tune it out. It is so important that we listen. The person with dementia may be trying to communicate something and have a hard time getting the words out. Everyone wants to be heard and to feel heard. Listen like what they have to say is important to you – because it is!
  • Practice patience and kindness. Dementia is hard. It is hard for the caregiver, and it is also hard for the person with memory impairment. Give an extra measure of grace, kindness, and patience. No one signed up for this, and everyone is doing the best they can. Don’t take the hard stuff personally.
  • Assist with hygiene and appearance. There comes a point when you really want to pick your battles, and sometimes appearance is not a battle to pick. But, as much as possible, it is important to help your loved one look how they would prefer to look. Appearance helps with self-esteem and general feelings of wellness. I know that I feel better when I am put together and my hair is fixed.

Dignity and respect play out in the way you talk and act towards a person with dementia. They show up in the words we use, in our tone of voice, in our actions, and in our body language. We have to be careful how we treat those with memory impairment.

When you feel yourself slipping into baby talk, excluding your loved one from conversation, or constantly correcting, take a moment. Pause, and compose yourself. It’s worth the extra effort and time to honor your loved one’s adulthood.

Written by Sheri Wammack, LBSW