How to Instantly Improve Your Zoom Conversations with a Person Living with Dementia
Not being able to visit a loved one for long periods of time is tough. While there is technology to help bridge the gap during this pandemic, or if you live farther away, some of these setups are particularly challenging when your loved one is living with dementia.
That said, if you are able to set up a video conference with your loved one via Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, or another platform, there are a few things that you can try to have a better chat:
In a recent study, Stanford News explained that one of the reasons for this drowsiness is that “Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is unnatural.”
One way you can actively reduce this phenomenon is by, instead of looking straight into the camera, turn your body sideways to the screen into a supportive stance. Not only does it open the other person’s visual field as you’re no longer the dominating object on their screen, but it also reduces the otherwise excessive amounts of eye contact.
As the dementia progresses and parts of the brain begin to change, language comprehension decreases. On-screen or off, this can make communication and mutual understanding a true challenge.
One way you as a caregiver (or care partner as we prefer to call you here at Positive Approach to Care) can counteract this is by getting used to incorporating more visual cues. Whether it is through showing objects or pointing at them, or being mindful to include more gestures to support your words, increasing your visual cues on Zoom will likely help you both have a better conversation.
You may want to think of a few different props that you can have nearby before you start your call. Then, when you’re on Zoom and your person is looking away or otherwise distracted, you can try to get their attention by throwing out an unexpected interjection like Oh!, Ah!, or Hey! to bring their attention back to you. Now, with your prop in hand, see if you can engage them.
As an example, in this dialogue Teepa uses a flexible, bendy ruler and a mug:
- Teepa: “Hey! Valerie, take a look at this. I got a new ruler. It measures inches, and when I flip it, it also does centimeters.”
- Valerie: “Oh, nice!”
- Teepa: “Yeah. And now look at this; this is the super cool part.” (Teepa bends the ruler into a circular shape.)
- Valerie: “Oh, so you can bend it?”
- Teepa: “Yeah, I can bend it around, and so I can measure all kinds of things that otherwise I’d have to try to find a tape measure. So, for this one, how many inches around is my cup?” (Teepa bends the ruler around her mug and holds it into the camera.)
- Valerie: “It looks like 11.”
- Teepa: “Yeah, you’re absolutely right – its 11. You are really good at this. Super. You really have good eyes.”
- Valerie: “I have my glasses on.”
- Teepa: “You have your glasses on. So, if I was going to make a koozie to fit around my mug and keep things warm, I’d want to make it 11 inches around and…let’s say, maybe you can help me out here…” (Teepa holds the ruler to measure the mug’s height and holds both up to the camera.)
- Valerie: “It’s looks like three and a quarter.”
- Teepa: “Three and a quarter? Oh, you’re good at the details. You know what – you’re absolutely right; it’s three and a quarter. Wow, nice work!”
In addition, this signals to the other person that you care and heard what they were saying. (If the person is in distress, reflecting their words and emotions can help bring back a sense of calm.)
If you picked out phrases like “You are really good at this. Super. You really have good eyes” and “Oh, you’re good at the details,” you are correct. By offering an honest compliment to the other person, you’re creating a connection while also making them feel appreciated.
And, since all human beings have an innate need to be needed, by asking for their help like Teepa did in this example (even if it is something you could do on your own), you’re allowing your person living with dementia to feel needed and valued.
Looking to engage them with music? You could play their favorite tune and see if that might spark a positive memory to talk about.
Or, you could try to sing or hum a song like “If you’re happy and you know it…” and clap your hands at the appropriate time, and see if that helps build a connection. If you do clap, try keeping your hands visible in the center of the screen and your body angled in a supportive stance to offer the most helpful visuals and cues.
When it comes to engagement, on Zoom or off, it helps to get creative. And if something doesn’t work, try something else.