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Caring for a Senior with Dementia During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially disruptive for seniors with dementia, who may be accustomed to routines, communicate in non-traditional ways, and face other challenges that are heightened during this unusual time.

At Sunrise, the care we deliver to our Reminiscence residents is centered in the principles of the Validation Method, an empathetic communication technique founded by Naomi Feil. Validation enables us to put ourselves in the shoes of the person with memory loss and join their journey or their personal reality.

“When we use Validation, we meet the person where they are instead of expecting them to be where we are. We use empathy and step into their world, mirroring their emotions and asking open-ended questions to help them express what they are feeling,” says Rita Altman, senior vice president of Memory Care & Program Services for Sunrise Senior Living. “For the senior, just knowing that they are being accepted and heard, and having the opportunity to express those feelings to an empathetic caregiver, can bring tremendous relief.”

During COVID-19, an added complication of caring for seniors with dementia is that wearing masks can make it harder for us to communicate through facial expressions. Most experts agree that 70–93 percent of communication is nonverbal. It’s therefore even more important that we pay closer attention to our body language.

Here are some nonverbal communication tips that Sunrise team members are using, and that can be helpful for all caregivers of people with dementia, especially during the pandemic.

  • Let your eyes do the talking: Try to make good eye contact—socially distanced as much as possible. Try not to squint, which can be misconstrued as a sign of disagreement. Wear a smile under your face mask, and your eyes will mirror that smile. Likewise, if a senior is expressing sadness or anger, mirror their expression so that they can see and feel that you have empathy and are genuinely trying to understand their feelings. 
  • Gestures and body position: Keep an open body position with arms open, rather than folded or fidgeting. Use hand gestures to convey warmth. Sit down at eye level if possible, and nod to show understanding. 
  • Pay attention to your voice tone: Use a warm tone of voice. If a senior is hard of hearing, you may need to carry a white board to write down your key points. Remember to practice appropriate sanitizing. Let the senior hear the empathy in your voice.

Here are a few other general tips to keep in mind:

  • Take precautions to prevent spread of illness: Of course, it is essential right now to follow all the necessary precautions to keep yourself and your loved one safe. This includes social distancing to the extent possible, wearing protective equipment, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, practicing good hand hygiene, and frequently cleaning high-touch surfaces. By modeling good behaviors, you can help your loved one stay safe, too.
  • Center yourself: Centering means calming your mind and emotions and slowing your breath so that you can focus your attention on the resident, rather than the great many other changes and challenges happening in your community. Taking a few minutes to do so, when possible, can be extremely valuable.
  • Listen first, and practice empathy: Validation is centered upon empathetically listening to residents, and joining them where they are. Rather than beginning an interaction by telling your loved one something, allow them to explain to you how they are feeling. Ask open-ended questions, and match their emotions using your body language. Avoid therapeutic lying, as this can erode the trust a resident feels in you.
  • Take care of yourself: We can best support our loved ones when we ourselves feel healthy and well-rested. Make sure to eat well and stay active, and find a trusted friend or family member whom you can talk to about the challenges and joys you experience each day. This article has some easy suggestions for practicing self-care during this challenging time.

More Resources

The Validation Training Institute has two videos that may be helpful during this time:

For more information on Sunrise's response to COVID-19, visit our We Are Prepared page.

Article By: Sunrise Senior Living

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