Linda Harman, a dementia carer and member of the Unforgettable expert panel shares her experiences of taking the time to listen.
It can be especially challenging to listen well to a person who is living with dementia. Spending time with my mother is getting hard now that her speech is almost totally incoherent. We used to enjoy nothing more than taking time out to natter together about family affairs. Now, when I arrive to share a coffee or sit companionably for a short while, she often assumes that I have come to take her out – so, as I arrive, she tries to depart! This leaves me with a dilemma; is it best to show my care by visiting frequently or to visit only when the intention is to spend several hours together, to walk, go shopping or have a family meal?
I have discovered that part of managing my relationship with my mother is learning to stay calm and not react immediately to her responses. This is very difficult for me, as I am naturally a very outgoing, impulsive person. My mother has taught me the value of taking time to breathe, to be relaxed, and of simply smiling whilst she processes the fact that, today, I am just joining her for a coffee and we are staying in the lounge.
Learning to slow my own pace of life, at least temporarily, in order to provide a space that my mother can occupy comfortably, is one way that I can contribute towards her quality of life. It is not possible to reverse dementia, or to take it away, but it is possible to learn to understand the common behaviours that dementia brings. In itself this can make a major contribution towards how content a person with dementia feels. Taking the time to talk and having the patience to listen is key to this.
Trying to understand and to tune into the way your relative or friend is feeling is a huge gift. I personally have to work at it, as patience is not my greatest strength, but I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter too much if I don’t comprehend what being said. What is important is that my mother feels that I will take the time to listen. Sometimes she surprises you. Sometimes the few clear words express understanding that shocks us. That is the nature of dementia and the reason why it is so important take time to listen and to work to help the world understand this too.
Terry Pratchett, the well-known author who himself had dementia, once said: “I am lucky. I am in a place where I can be me.”
I would like everyone living with dementia to be able to say the same.