“It’ll all be ok.”
A common phrase we all use when we want to reassure someone. However, for people with dementia it’s not always that helpful. Yes, it offers a low-level of verbal reassurance, but that may not be understood, and it does nothing to address the underlying concern, worry, or need the person has that has prompted you to reassure them in the first place. For this reason, I’d describe it as offering largely empty reassurance. Without the knowledge of what is troubling the person, you can have no idea if it will all be ok or not, and the person may realise this too.
The topic of reassurance, and specifically how you provide reassurance, is something that is regularly discussed in my training and mentoring work. Many people with dementia experience significant anxiety and we naturally want to reassure them, but what makes everything ok is usually a combination of both words AND actions.
Reassurance in our words
Our verbal reaction needs to be more meaningful than simply telling the person that it’ll all be ok. Their worries need validating. For the person how they feel is very real, and in a world that may be confusing to them they are looking for us to support their emotions. They may not be able to tell us what is worrying them, but it’s worth asking and gently exploring. If you manage to get any information from the person it may be that what you learn seems illogical, but you should never seek to dismiss what the person has said or minimise the effect of how they are feeling.
Remember that underlying the person’s worries may be untreated pain or discomfort, so it’s also worth gently exploring how they are feeling physically. They may be hungry or thirsty. They may need the toilet. They may need sleep.
Reassurance in our actions
Alongside our words, our actions are vital. We need to be interacting with the person at the same level as them, making eye contact and offering reassuring touch if they want/like this. We should be observing their body language and thinking about our own body language too.
Don’t underestimate the power of simple pleasures to reassure a person far better than words can. We could offer a blanket or other item that provides comfort, a warm drink or a food that they enjoy. Moving to a window or going outside to be immersed in nature can be incredibly reassuring. Music is fantastic at supporting emotions and enabling a person to express themselves, as is art. For other people, being immersed in domestic tasks or hobbies that they enjoy can be the key to them feeling more settled.
What needs to underpin our words and actions?
Knowledge of the person is the singularly most important skill that you’ll need. If you’re a family member this will be easier than if you’re a health or social care professional, unless you have life story work already in-place for the person.
I’ve just been finalising a life story train-the-trainer package for one of my care home clients, and it’s really brought home to me (AGAIN!) the immense value of this work. It will help anyone supporting a person in any situation, from personal care to end of life care, to be more thoughtful and compassionate. Being able to draw on a comprehensive knowledge of the person is also going to make engaging them in meaningful conversation when they need reassurance much easier, and means we can be far more supportive than just offering a verbal “It’ll all be ok.”
If life story work is the singularly most important resource you can draw upon when a person is distressed, anxious and/or in need of reassurance, the most important aspect of yourself that you can give is undoubtedly your time.
It’s no co-incidence that my blogs on life story work and time both have the word ‘gift’ in the title. Written a few years ago, and two years apart, these two blogs are a timeless reminder that when it comes to ‘giving’ things to people with dementia it’s not about lavish presents but in fact being present.
As many of us prepare for the upcoming Christmas festivities, I’d suggest that if you want to do something for a person with dementia make it life story work, especially if the person has any professional support within their own home, a care home or if they go into hospital. The knowledge of the person, their family and friends distilled into any type of resource (captioned if it involves photos etc) will mean that when a professional is supporting them they can offer something tangible in their conversation, and grow their relationship with the person to offer true reassurance in times of distress.
Factoring in extra time for a person with dementia will help to bring that life story work to life, and support a person with dementia to feel less lonely and isolated, both of which can lead to significant anxiety. As a time-poor person, I know the struggle to juggle everything is very real for many of us, but dementia puts you on the clock and I’d give anything for more time with my dad.
I think we truly make things ‘ok’ when we realise what is important, and it isn’t empty words, gestures or meaningless stuff. It’s human relationships, contact, and expressions of kindness and love. As the age-old saying goes: “A person with dementia may not remember what you’ve said, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
Until next time…