As a group, seniors are known for repeating themselves.
Whether it's a story from their past, or an amusing joke they just heard, our aging loved ones have a tendency to say the same thing multiple times.
If an older adult is healthy, these occurrences are infrequent enough that most of us feel alright listening to the same thing more than once. We may supplement our attentive outward expression with an internal eye roll, but humoring a loved one in this situation is not confusing or burdensome.
However, there is a difference between an elder who repeats every once in a while, and an elder who has dementia and asks the same question multiple times in a matter of minutes, or regales you with the same story several times in one day. When this happens, it can be difficult for a frustrated caregiver to know how to respond, and how to get them to stop.
Teepa Snow, M.S., an occupational therapist and dementia education expert discusses how to respond to four of the most commonly repeated phrases by people suffering from dementia.
Commonly Repeated Phrases
Repeat: "Do I have a doctor's appointment today?"
Response: "Yes, you do. I'm sorry, I thought I said something, but maybe I didn't. (Pause for response--if they say something, use some of their words to affirm their feelings, then add a new thought pattern) In the meantime, can you help me clip these coupons?"
Explanation: In the early stages of dementia, your loved one is likely to have the greatest difficulty storing and recalling new information. Some days they will be able remember recent things, like doctor's appointments. On other days, in Snow's words, "their wiring won't work." When your loved one is repeatedly asking the same question, you need to recognize that it's because they are having trouble with their short-term memory.
In these cases, Snow says that a caregiver should do two things: let your loved one know that it's okay that they are having trouble by saying "sorry," and get them out of the cycle of repeating. A good way to break the cycle is by giving your loved one something else to do. Snow says that simple tasks that allow your loved one to be successful (like clipping coupons), will give them something else to think about while making them feel good because they are helping you out.
Repeat: "When are we going to that doctor's appointment?"
Response: "I just spoke with him on the phone and he says that he doesn't need to see you again anytime soon."
Explanation: In this scenario, Snow says that you want to avoid telling your loved one that they've already been to the doctor's appointment. "The key is to let them know that the doctor doesn't need to see them again, without confronting them when their brain is saying that they haven't been to the doctor."
Snow says that confronting a loved one who has dementia will only serve to amplify their anxiousness. They will begin to feel as though they can't trust themselves and will be even more likely to ask you things repeatedly in the future.
Repeat: "Where are we going again?"
Response: "We're going to the doctor's. Hey mom, I made a CD for us to listen to, it has some of your favorite songs on it. See if you can recognize the artists."
Explanation: When you're trapped in the car with a loved one who keeps asking you where you're going or when you'll get there can be exceedingly frustrating, but Snow says that caregivers should avoid ignoring or lashing out in these situations.
The key to handling this scenario effectively is to respond to your loved one and engage them in doing something else. Activities that involve music will likely be the most effective because, according to Snow, music is one of the few retained skills in people who have dementia. It's also a good idea to use older music that will be familiar for your loved one.
Repeat: "Have I ever told you about that time…?"
Response: "Really? Tell me about it."
Explanation: Elderly loved ones who tell the same story over and over again is a common complaint of caregivers everywhere.
But, while these repetitive litanies can be obnoxious, Snow says that they are an important communication technique for a person who is losing their memory. Your loved one wants to engage with you, but, to them, it may seem as though you (the caregiver) are always in charge of the conversation, which makes them feel anxious and stupid. So, they will pick old stories that they know they will remember so they can have a dialogue with you, instead of being talked at all the time.
Asking them to, "Tell me about it," is a supportive method that lets your loved one know that you want to talk with them. Snow also says that, though you may have heard a particular story dozens of times, it is important to document it in some way. As their disease progresses, your loved one will gradually lose their ability to tell you that story. But, the story is important because it may tell you things about them that will be helpful in the future. Snow says that listening to and recording the stories of your loved one will help you get to know them better, so, "as they lose themselves, you can help them reestablish the connections."