How to Instantly Improve Your Zoom Conversations with a Person Living with Dementia

How to Instantly Improve Your Zoom Conversations with a Person Living with Dementia post page

Valerie Feurich

By Valerie FeurichMarch 17th, 2021

How to Instantly Improve Your Zoom Conversations with a Person Living with Dementia

3 Strategies for Building Better Connections on a Video Call
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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 further 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:
1. Be mindful of your body language
Being aware of your body language can make a big difference in dementia care in general. But even if everyone’s visual field is limited to a screen or a mobile device, the way you position yourself can help or hurt your conversation with a person living with dementia.

Video conferencing in itself has a rather confrontational setup as we’re forced to look at each other straight on, face to face, often for long periods of time. If you’ve been on several Zoom calls, you may have noticed how tiring this can be.

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.
Confrontational Stance
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Supportive Stance
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In addition, you may want to try looking away occasionally when the other person is talking, but always making sure to look like you’re listening. Use visual cues such as nodding, changing facial expressions, or occasional interjections like “Okay, yeah”, to signal you are listening.
2. See if someone can help limit their self-view
While it is nice to be able to see the other person on your screen, the common setup of constantly having to look at oneself is stressful even for those living without brain change. According to Stanford News, studies have shown that seeing yourself constantly is not only fatiguing but can carry negative emotional consequences.

Now imagine living with Alzheimers or another form of dementia, and how distracting it would be to have to see yourself (which you may or may not recognize) and one or more other people on your screen. Likely, this would be a challenge.

Therefore, if the situation allows, you may want to see if someone would be able to turn off your loved one’s self-view on their device. At the time of this writing, the only platform that seems to incorporate this option natively to some degree is Zoom. To view those instructions, please click here.

That said, considering that there’s more and more research coming out about the downsides of constant self-view, we hope that other tech companies will follow suit and provide an option to disable it while remaining visible to others.
3. Use objects or music for engagement

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!”
If you have read some of our other blogs before, you may have picked up on a few of Teepa Snow’s communication techniques here. (Nice job if you remember them!)

If you’re new to our blogs, see if you can spot any of these techniques in the above example:

Reflection/Mirroring
Did you notice how Teepa frequently begins her sentence by repeating or rephrasing the last few words Valerie just said? When a person is living with dementia, reflecting their last words can help them keep a fluid conversation.

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.)
Positive Personal Connection (PPC)
While there are several PPCs in the Positive Approach toolbox, in this example Teepa uses the Compliment, indicating something about the other person of value. Can you pinpoint where she did that?

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, 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.
While nothing beats being in person with the person that you care about, using technology to bridge the gap can help you feel a little more connected. And while the native video conferencing setups may not be ideal, with a few small tweaks and tips, the experience may become just a little more comfortable for you both.
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4 Comments on “How to Instantly Improve Your Zoom Conversations with a Person Living with Dementia”

  1. Avatar

    This is so important. The facility where our mom lives does not do this. I would like to help them so they can help other families.
    How do I become a member? I would like to become certified, where do I start?

    1. Alejandro DeJesus

      Hi Brenda,
      Thanks for checking out the blog post. You are welcome to share the link to this post with anyone that you would like to.

      We also have a few different options for learning more about these skills in a training environment. Checkout our Champion Courses, https://teepasnow.com/services/on-site-training/one-day-public-skills-champion-course/

      You can checkout out different certification courses here: https://teepasnow.com/certifications/

      If you prefer to have a conversation you can also give us a ring and leave a message so that we can connect with you. 877-877-1671 or info@teepasnow.com

  2. TONI FISK

    Great reminder about the passive stance and turning to the side. I believe we are zoom trained to put our best (full) face forward when the camera is turned on! Terrific blog post, thank you!

  3. Avatar

    I’ve been organizing a weekly group Zoom visit for my sister who is in a residential facility in NC with a group of her friends from all over. So far it is going well. While she doesn’t participate much, Nancy seems to enjoying seeing folks and hearing them talk and share about what they are doing as well as their memories of their times with her. We’re getting more smiles and she always says hi to everyone who comes on I plan on sharing this with them to see if it helps Nancy feel even more comfortable and perhaps we can find ways to increase her interactions. I’m especially interested in seeing if we can use the system to help her not have to see herself. I do get the feeling that is not helpful for her.

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