This is Carrie, one of the most inspirational people I've ever had the privilege of meeting. Please take ten minutes of your time to listen to her. I'm her clinical supervisor but go away from our meetings thinking that I might be learning way more from her than she ever does from me. She's petite and quiet, unassuming even, not adjectives that anyone would use to describe me. However we have much more in common that would outwardly appear. What unites us is a shared desire to increase our understanding of the psyche of those people with dementia who suffer dreadful agitation and distress. Thankfully they are in a minority but their numbers are not insignificant. Our aim is to help them hold onto their identity and make sense of a world that can become increasingly bewildering and horrific as the disease progresses.
One of the things that we agree on is the importance of the language we adopt around those that we care for. We strongly feel that using words like 'violent' and 'aggressive' isn't helpful. People with dementia might lash out bodily and with their tongues when they interpret the world as a very frightening place indeed. Most of us would fight if we felt extreme threat. It is a very understandable response.
It occurred to me the other day that if a person is labelled in terms that describe them as dangerous others will interact with them differently. Most will approach them with a sense of trepidation and adjust their communication and actions accordingly. I believe that this increases the risk of harm. People with dementia aren't stupid! They'll pick up on those negative emotions and quite rightly deduce that something is terribly wrong with the interaction.
What I've found helpful is to cast my own fear aside. I'll greet the person warmly, tell them my name, look into their eyes and make physical contact, normally by holding or shaking their hand. And if they seem scared I'll acknowledge that and try to soothe them. Sure I'm mindful of the need to stay safe but this isn't the uppermost thing in my mind. What tops this is the desire to connect, human to human.
I'm not saying that this is the whole story by any means. Carers often have to perform necessary tasks which could seem threatening to someone with dementia. Imagine what you'd feel like if someone was trying to remove your clothing and you didn't understand. But in normal social interactions that don't involve intimate self care my approach seems to work. I am rewarded with intensely meaningful connections with another. And I haven't been hit for a very long time.