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The Power of Choice: You can empower people with dementia by giving them options

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Please Note: This article does not contain official medical advice or guidance for making important decisions impacting a person’s health, safety or well-being. For information about decision-making related to those matters, please consult a professional.

Here's a little something that a lot of us don't realize, or think about...

Just because a person has dementia symptoms, doesn’t mean they can’t think for themselves, have opinions, or make their own decisions. People with dementia show us time and time again that they are quite capable of making choices.

Now, we’re not necessarily talking about major life choices with big consequences. If the choice involves something that could impact the person’s health or well-being, you might be best to ask for professional advice.

But know this. Your approach can make a real difference in helping them live well. Giving options, and letting them choose what their day-to-day looks like, can be a great way to go.

Think about Gerald’s Dad, for example.

“He has trouble communicating sometimes, but he can still make lots of choices,” says Gerald. When they’re out for lunch, Gerald takes this into account and works around it.

“I’ll ask my Dad, ‘Would you like this or that?’ from the menu. Sometimes his answer will surprise me, but he’s happy with his choice.”

Gerald shares his story about choices here.

Check out some examples

Provide options

“Would you like to relax in the kitchen or the living room?”

“Do you want to walk to the park, or take the truck?”

“Would you rather have a turkey sandwich or a cheeseburger?”

“Should we watch a movie or go for a drive today?”

“Who would you like to visit with tomorrow, Kristin or Betty?”

Show pictures

Sometimes visuals help, so haul out a snapshot from your phone or your socials. “Kristin has the little brown dog. Betty has red glasses.”

You can also try using as many of the senses as possible. If you’re talking about a certain treat, for example – have them smell it or taste it to help with the decision.

Give it a minute

They might need time to process what you’ve said and respond. If it takes a bit longer, that’s OK. Remember, this disease affects the connections in the brain.

Check all the things

Are there other issues happening, like distractions or background noise? Even if it’s a mellow John Legend track in the background, it can make chit-chat more difficult. Check that other things are on board too, like their hearing aids are working properly, and glasses are on (and clean)!

Make decisions in a few steps

If you’re baking together, maybe it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Bake the cupcakes on Saturday and do the frosting on Sunday.

Saturday: “What kind of cupcakes should we make today, red velvet or vanilla?”

Sunday: “Do you want to make chocolate or cream cheese frosting?”

Asking yes or no questions is great, too

“Are you thirsty?”

“Would you like the TV turned up louder?”

“Want to listen to music?”

Be aware that body language is an important way of communicating things like boredom, frustration, and more. What do you notice?

Timing matters

Are they really a morning person? Are you?? Try another time when you’re both up for it.

Don’t overdo it

Decision fatigue is a thing, you can Google it. Keep your questions simple and try not to overwhelm the person with too many. Everyone’s brains get tired from time to time.  

Try again

Sometimes the options aren’t the right ones, and that’s OK. Give it a little bit and try again. You might get a completely different response.

What kinds of choices have worked well for you?

Your examples can help so many others who are also on this path. Please share them with us!

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