Do you like my tie? The power of asking for an opinion

scarves of different colors can spark a discussion among people with dementiaThe Best Friends™ Approach seeks to make people with dementia feel valued and important—connected to the world and, in spite of cognitive problems, able to make a difference. Asking a person with dementia for an opinion is an easy way to make that happen.

When David Troxel’s mom Dorothy was living in a memory care community, he would bring her five ties and five dress shirts on hangars. “Mom, I have several meetings this week,” he would say. “Which of these ties should I wear with these shirts?” Dorothy Troxel was always happy to share an opinion. David came home with Dorothy’s wisdom and a better coordinated wardrobe.

Our friend Kathy Laurenhue wears lots of bright colors when she works with elders, and often brings in a couple of scarves to show off. She encourages friendly discussion about which scarf looks best on her. Laughter and a lively discussion usually follow, and they are pretty frank if her outfit doesn’t quite work. But that’s friendship: plenty of give and take, including advice and opinions, solicited and unsolicited!

So ask away! Asking a person with dementia for an opinion has many benefits. Asking can:

  • Build self-esteem
  • Connect people with what is going on around them
  • Help them feel like they are making a difference in the life of the asker
  • Affirm the person as someone with definite likes, dislikes, and a point of view.

Like David and Kathy, you might try asking for feedback on your outfit. “I didn’t have a chance to look in the mirror today. . .”

  • Do you think my tie matches my shirt?
  • Does this necklace match my blouse?
  • Do you like my new hair color?
  • Do you like my beard or should I shave it off?
  • What will it be today—is it a pink lipstick day or a red lipstick day?

Discuss daily life or something from your personal life

Asking for wardrobe advice can prompt a general discussion of fabrics, textures, colors, and changing widths of ties. So can elements from your personal life. “My boyfriend proposed but we’ve only been dating three months – is that too soon?” can spark a friendly debate on whether it’s best to wait a year or trust in “love at first sight” and go for it. So can questions about going back to school (now or later?), or saving for a big trip versus having fun in the moment.

And have some fun asking for opinions about daily life:

  • Help me organize this flower arrangement (asking for help is great, too!) Do you like the pink roses best or the yellow roses?
  • Catsup on hot dogs – yes or no?
  • Do you prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream?
  • What do you think of the old saying, “have dessert first?”
  • What makes the best vacation spot – the city or the country?
  • I’m thinking of getting a pet – what makes the best companion – a cat or a dog?

Asking for opinions when language is limited or gone

Even people whose language is beginning to falter can say yes or no, I like it or I don’t like it.

Steve, a participant in the Best Friends Day Center in Lexington, Kentucky, has difficulty speaking, but he still wants to express emotions and opinions. With the help of staff and volunteers, he succeeds. During a discussion of college sports teams, for example, they draw from Steve’s Life Story. Knowing that he graduated from Purdue University, they might ask, “Steve, thumbs up or thumbs down, are you a boilermaker?” With delight Steve can give a thumbs-up sign. This invitation to express himself makes Steve feel a part of the conversation regardless of his abilities.

One delightful result of seeking opinions is that the person with dementia often has wisdom to share, be it about education, marriage or even your wardrobe. Who knows what you’ll learn?

When a Best Friend care partner asks for an opinion and authentically listens, relationships strengthen and meaningful connection follows. Give it a try!

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