Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Talk to me: Author helps families converse with loved ones who have memory loss

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    Diana Waugh

  • talk-to-me-illustration


Diana Waugh


While it can be baffling for relatives when an aging loved one suffers memory loss, Diana Waugh of Waterville points out that it’s frustrating for the senior citizen, too.

Ms. Waugh knows what those relatives face, and not just because her late mother, Iona Kiser, suffered cognitive loss.

As a registered nurse who has cared for older adults, she has observed memory loss professionally. Ms. Waugh has made it her business to try to help them, the relatives, and professionals who care for the elderly with memory loss.

Ms. Waugh is a long-term care expert and consultant whose 2008 self-published book, I Was Thinking — Unlocking the Door to Successful Conversations with Loved Ones with Cognitive Loss, is a good place to start learning how to communicate with someone experiencing cognitive loss. The book can be obtained through her Web site at

Though science is trying to better understand cognitive loss, there is no cure for it, she said.

"So we have to worry about today. How do I talk to my loved one or neighbor today?" she said. "You are hoping against hope if you think they will come up with a magic pill, even though they are working on it," Ms. Waugh recently told about 60 people at the Simpson Building at Simpson Garden Park in Bowling Green.

Ms. Waugh’s hour-long presentation about how to communicate with loved ones with memory loss went fast. In fact, the audience seemed to want to hear about more of her insights and how to cope with a relative with cognitive loss.

She adds personal stories and a good bit of humor to a very serious subject. Nationwide, agencies call on her to give their audiences the tools to care for or visit loved ones with cognitive loss.

Give up expectations

Ms. Waugh’s 56-page book guides families toward making simple adjustments in their talks with relatives who have memory loss. She wants families to use the book so much that they wear it out.

Though there is more than one type of dementia and the one we most frequently hear about is Alzheimer’s, Ms. Waugh says it’s not necessary for a family to become too concerned about trying to understand what type of memory loss their mother, father, or other relative has in order to talk with them.

Focus instead on making visits valuable, memorable, pleasurable, and enjoyable. To do that, she urges families to embrace several points. The first one: "Give up your expectations of them."

Ms. Waugh said she used to talk with her mother daily and always sought her advice. But it was difficult for Ms. Waugh when her mother had memory loss. Her mother couldn’t be the person from whom she sought guidance and advice anymore.

As a result, Ms. Waugh said, "I was unknowingly being mean to her by asking her questions that she couldn’t answer because I wanted her back.

"I was losing the lady I knew as my mother, and I tried to drag her into my world. When I went into her world, it worked a lot better."

Letting go of who and what a loved one once was reduces anxiety during visits.

‘I need you to’

Ms. Waugh urged her audience to focus on whatever strengths and talents a person still has. Everyone, even people with memory loss, want to know that they are needed and can be of help, she said.

Telling someone with memory loss that "I need you to ..." fold the napkins, put stamps on envelopes, or stir the cake batter, for example, not only gives them something to do, but gives them purpose.

It’s important too to let other care providers or the staff in a care facility know what your relative enjoys doing. Does the person enjoy painting? Singing? Assembling family photos? Hearing good stories, or telling funny jokes? Then tell the people who provide care.

A relative with memory loss but who still speaks well can confuse someone who doesn’t know that memory loss and speech don’t always diminish at the same time.

"It’s confusing when their speech is still perfect," Ms. Waugh said.

What’s not confusing, though, is having to worry about subjects to discuss during visits.

"One of the great things about memory loss is that you don’t have to have a thousand things to talk about," Ms. Waugh said.

Of course, that’s because a loved one may be happy to talk about the same topic again and again.

Some words, questions, and statements shouldn’t be used, Ms. Waugh warns. Questions that begin with "Do you remember ..." can pressure relatives to lie or make them feel as though they are failures when they cannot recall a subject or event.

Do you homework

The consultant underscored the need to be especially cautious about always telling a loved one "no." Hearing that too much could cause a relative to latch onto a care provider who is not a family member or anyone else who is around only for the good times, and who doesn’t have to deal with routine care.

"Sometimes people with dementia love the stranger because they are not a threat," she said.

That’s why nonthreatening approaches to subjects help the person enduring memory loss.

Ms. Waugh said you might say to them, "I was thinking ..." — hence, the title of her book — about the family vacation to the Statue of Liberty, a grandchild’s wedding in the park when the flower girl fell into the pond, a special recipe for sweet potato pie, and so on.

Ms. Waugh urges listeners to concentrate on the simple, pleasurable things of life when talking with people with cognitive loss. What do they like to taste, touch, smell?

It’s vital that relatives of people with cognitive loss learn about it. After all, the people who provide care in nursing homes and other facilities cannot know all of their patients intimately, Ms. Waugh said.

"We have never had this much dementia; 80 to 85 percent of the people in nursing homes have some kind of memory loss," she said.

She doesn’t know whether the high percentage is because health professionals are more aware of it or whether more people are living longer.

"We really don’t know," she said. "That’s why family members must do their homework."

Contact Rose Russell at or 419-724-6178.

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