A woman serving a man tea

Making the Connection: How to Build Moments of Meaning with a Person Living with Dementia

Beth Hutchason, MN, ARNP

By: Beth Hutchason, MN, ARNP

Being human means being connected. From this, we derive pleasure, context and meaning. This does not change as we age or as we develop progressive diseases. Actually, these may increase our need for connection. Social connection is having close and positive relationships with others. This transcends all of our medical barriers. As a bonus, this connection is beneficial for all of the persons involved! So, what can we do to maintain this bond as memory loss worsens? Here are some ideas:

Let go of expectations.

At some point, a person living with dementia may not seem to be the entire person they once were, but that does not mean they have lost who they are. The key is to meet them where they are now. Just because an accountant can no longer manage finances does not mean they cannot enjoy fishing with you or relish telling a fantastic story. “Maybe the story is about fishing and the maybe the details aren’t the same ones you recall – that’s okay.” The point is to focus on what is present, not what has been lost.

Let them tell their stories.

Your loved one may share the same stories with you many times. Later, you may wish that you could hear them tell it again. So, ask them about it. Write it down word-for-word, have them help you “note the details they recall”. Record it so that you have it in their voice. Trust me, you will cherish that recording later.

Access another part of the brain.

We have found that some forms of communication can be helpful to people with dementia. Music is the first one that comes to mind. Play music that the person loves. Try new genres that they may love now (meeting them where they are). Use headphones if possible; this may help to block out other distractions and allows the brain to focus on one thing. If you have any doubts regarding the power of music to reach people, Google “dementia music” and watch the videos online. I have also found that liturgy/common prayers from worship services are also retained and bring comfort to some people who have had a faith practice. For my father, he could read poetry aloud (beautifully, I may add) despite his dementia being progressed to the point of being unable to hold a conversation.


Laughter is connection, and laughter is healing. We all need both of these things. Memory loss means that funny things will happen. Enjoy that. Rejoice in the twinkle in someone’s eye that you have known for 50 years. Share that funny story from years ago together. Look at pictures together to help prompt those joy-filled memories.

If words don’t work, use an object or picture.

Pictures are encoded differently and more efficiently than words in our brains. For example, a person may not be able to decipher a verbal question about wanting to play cards. Still, they may understand a physical pack of cards or recognize someone dealing their favorite game. Be careful, as they may still beat you soundly, too! Does someone love to garden but does not respond when asked about desiring to do so? Go out into the yard and provide a gentle cue to help garden or take them out and give them a plant to install in a raised bed near the back door.

most importantly love

like it’s the only thing you know how
at the end of the day all this
means nothing
this page
where you’re sitting
your degree
your job
the money
nothing even matters
except love and human connection
who you loved
and how deeply you loved them
how you touched the people around you
and how much you gave them

– Rupi Kaur

Do you have suggestions for increasing connection? Add them in the comments below.

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