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HOW TO SERVE SOMEONE WHO NO LONGER REMEMBERS

"This is hard. Sometimes excruciating. I'm losing her in stages, one memory at a time," Sam said.

Sam's wife Margaret had been battling dementia for years.

"It started slowly. She began forgetting things. Like a jigsaw puzzle, parts of her disappeared, piece by piece. As time went on, the holes in the puzzle got larger," he continued.

"I struggled. I got angry. I grew bitter about it. And then one day I woke up. I loved her. It was time I started learning about this stuff so I could meet her where she was, rather than trying to pull her back into my world."

"All this is a thousand miles outside my comfort zone. But I'm doing it. I'm learning more every day about how to care for her and love her better," Sam concluded.

Chances are, all of us have a loved one or friend (or several) dealing with serious memory issues. Pieces of who they were are disappearing. Perhaps their personality is changing as well. For us this can be shocking, sad, and confusing.

What can we do? How do we handle this?

The first natural response is denial. We tell ourselves, "This can't be happening. I don't want this. So I'll just live as if everything is okay and nothing has changed."

When denial doesn't work and we keep bumping into reality, many of us tend to turn tail and run. Since we don't know what to do, we do nothing. Or perhaps we're concerned about doing or saying the wrong thing, so we don't call or come around as much. In an effort to distance ourselves from the pain of the situation, we pull away.

As Sam said, challenges like this can be way outside our personal comfort zones. The funny thing about comfort zones is they don't bring comfort. They slowly anesthetize our hearts and keep us from fully living and loving others.

One definition of love might be to meet others where they are rather than requiring them to be where we are. Love challenges us to step outside of ourselves and risk. And that's often uncomfortable. As Sam said, "This is hard."

How can you serve someone who no longer remembers? Consider the following a quick summary - a sort of cheat sheet - on how to approach and relate to those who are slowly drifting away from you.

1. Find a good environment.

Background noise and crowded rooms can be distracting to any conversation. But for someone with dementia or Alzheimer's, it can be disorienting and anxiety-producing.

Find a quiet place with minimal distractions. It will help both of you be more present.

2. Treat them with dignity, respect, and great value.

I believe people are created in the image of God. We are all unique, special, and of priceless value. This is true no matter what we think, say, or do, or what happens to us or around us.

When you think about your friend or loved one, contemplate their value and influence in life. Priceless. Immeasurable. Special beyond words.

When you approach them, look into their eyes and see that value. He or she is one of a kind, unique in the history of the world. And they are here, now, with you.

Because they remember less doesn't make them less. Their value hasn’t changed. They are still priceless.

3. Don't assume what they can or can't understand or remember.

Assumptions in any conversation can hinder good communication. When conversing with those who no longer remember, assumptions can be demeaning. For example, talking louder will not help (unless they are hard of hearing). Dumbing down or speaking to them like a child is belittling.

Be yourself. Talk and communicate normally. You can adjust as you go, as you learn more about what and how much they can handle.

Act consistent with the relationship you have with them. Share your memories. Tell the stories as often as you can or as you like. Pictures or familiar objects can be helpful. In many cases, you'll be reminding them of great times they can no longer remember.

4. Speak directly to them.

Approach them from the front and make eye contact. Smile and call them by name. Talk to them like you normally would. Over time, you'll learn how to adjust to meet them more where they are.

Be careful of talking "around" them - having conversations with others as if they weren't there. Speak to them with dignity and respect.

5. Take time to listen.

Communication is more about listening than speaking. It's also much more than words. In fact, the majority of our communication is non-verbal: facial expression, eye contact, posture, gestures, and other body language.

Listen and observe. Let everything they say and do be important to you. Give them time to respond. Resist the temptation to fill the air with words because you're uncomfortable.

Listen to their words, their eyes, their face, their posture. Try and hear the heart behind it all.

6. Avoid correcting or arguing.

Yes, they will make mistakes - lots of them. Pieces of unconnected memories get jumbled together. They may not remember things or people that are significant to you - or recall them totally erroneously.

Your heart wants to pull them back into our world and into the memories that are precious to you. Unfortunately, this often creates anxiety and even frightens them. Take a deep breath, and meet them where they are.

Many times they speak of someone dead as if they are still alive. They have forgotten the death. To remind them of the truth can actually re-traumatize them. It can be as if they are hearing it for the first time and grieving all over again.

Enter their world. Be with them there. Your presence with them matters more than you realize.

You will not be able to fix this. As much as we would like to, living in the past is not a viable option. But treasuring the memories and good times is.

Set your sights of walking with them on their journey and loving them there. Treat them with dignity and respect. Tell and show them how valuable they are. Look them in the eye, speak directly to them, and listen well.

You can make more of a difference than you know.

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Visit his website at www.garyroe.com or contact him at groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org or 979-821-2266.