How to Interview Someone With Dementia

How to Interview Someone With Dementia

Posted on
May 13, 2021
Quick Navigation

With a condition like Alzheimer’s or dementia, the presentation of symptoms tends to worsen over time. As the disease progresses, communication can become more challenging. Additionally, cognitive abilities involved in memory recall are diminished. After receiving a dementia diagnosis, an individual and their loved ones may want to consider a Life Story Interview. The earlier this can be done, the better. 

That said, it’s not always possible to capture someone’s life stories before dementia has significantly impacted their abilities and behaviors. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth attempting to talk to that person about their life and memories, even going as far as to record any personal stories they’re able to share. In fact, this form of engagement can help to prolong existing memories and support someone in connecting to their sense of self. Whatever life story information is captured in the present moment combined with what friends and family contribute can be used to improve care outcomes for that individual. If anything, it may be worth pursuing for that reason alone. 

If you want to interview someone with dementia, it is important to approach the conversation with a positive attitude, a willingness to try, and a heart ready to accept whatever happens. Here are some tips for fostering an effective and successful interaction in this situation. 

Interview Tips

Planning Ahead

  • Conduct your conversation at an optimal time when they will be most alert.
  • Ensure that they’ve eaten, used the toilet, are at a comfortable temperature, etc. It’s difficult to focus when our basic needs aren’t met.
  • Make sure you’ve cleared your calendar in a way that gives you a sufficient amount of time. You don’t want to be rushed or stressed. 
  • Have a list of questions or topics in mind to try and talk about, but be flexible if the conversation meanders.
  • Consider the environment where you’ll be chatting. Are there any distractions you can limit or avoid (e.g. turning off television, closing blinds if the sun is too bright, shutting a window to limit noise)?

Body Language & Presentation

  • Make sure your body language and facial expressions match your voice and what you are saying.
  • Make eye contact. 
  • Don’t position yourself too far away or above them. You want to be on their level. 
  • You may need to speak up or speak slower, but don’t do this in a way that would seem insulting. 
  • If you notice the person you’re interviewing getting tired or growing agitated, it is best to stop the conversation and try another time. Pay attention to their physical and emotional cues. 

Asking Questions

  • A litany of questions, one right after the other, can come across like an interrogation. Wherever possible, try to keep the interview conversational, conversing in a way that flows and feels casual. 
  • Give the person time to think and respond, longer than what would feel ‘normal’. If they are struggling to come up with an answer, gently hint at something to get them started or direct to another question.
  • If they aren’t able to elaborate much with their answers, it may be helpful to phrase your questions as yes/no questions: “Did you like to go dancing when you were a teenager?” 
  • If you don’t understand something they said, it’s okay to kindly inform them that you’re having a hard time understanding and ask for further clarification or to check if you heard them correctly. 

Reassurance

  • Be positive. Where appropriate, reassure them with supportive statements and gentle touches.
  • If you notice little inaccuracies in the stories they’re recalling, let it go. There’s no point in attempting to correct them. 
  • Show your appreciation and gratitude when they’re able to answer something for you. 

Conversation Starters

  • Use photos, videos, books, music, or objects to prompt memories. While looking at a wedding ring, you might question, “What do you like about weddings?” or “What was your wedding day like?”
  • Start off by recalling a shared experience. It could be a special occasion, family event, vacation, or something you used to do together. As you start talking about it, they might join in the conversation or share in the reminiscing. 
  • Talk about things you know they were particularly interested in. For example, if they were a devoutly religious person, you might grab a Holy Book and ask them about their favorite passage or what they liked about attending religious services. 

What do Avoid

  • Do not use baby talk or any infantilizing words. 
  • Long sentences, tangents and stories with multiple streams of thought are to be avoided as they’re difficult to follow.
  • Do not mention someone who has died. It may not be best to remind them and trigger a wave of grief. Instead, it could be better to come up with another reason for that individual’s absence.
  • Interrupting or distracting can cause them to lose their train of thought completely and could cost you an answer to your question. 
  • Using sentences like, “Do you remember when…” or “I told you…”

Recording Life Stories With Storii

With hundreds of pre-loaded life story questions that you can choose from and the ability to add your own, Storii does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. With Storii, you can upload videos and images to your answers. You can also store things like personal playlists, save Google Street View locations to virtually visit, and create digital albums of old family photos. Answers to life story questions can be emailed and shared with loved ones. Learn more about Storii's interactive platform here.