A much-loved expression of my Mum's was "Curiosity killed the cat". She wasn't one for being asked questions. If ever one of us children asked "What's for lunch?" her standard response was "slugs, snails and puppy-dogs' tails" or "a Surprise". You were never going to get a straight answer. Honestly, as they say, you could get more out of a ham. But the amusement value of children's confusion must be inherited – favourite replies to similar requests from my own children included "reconstituted nylon shirts" (porridge) and "carpet tiles" (toast).
If I EVER asked Mum her age, her stock reply was, "I'm as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth" – I never really knew her age until she (and I) were much older.
One of the keys to good conversation with any person with moderate dementia, especially if encountered in a care home, is curiosity. This doesn't mean asking lots of questions. It means expressing genuine interest in and curiosity about the influences and experiences in their lives. Really, it is about really wanting to know.
At its best, curiosity is free-form. It allows the ebb and flow of the connectedness to lead somewhere that's more relevant or meaningful for the other person and means listening with true interest to what they might have to say. Showing authentic interest creates lovely and lively encounters. The other person always recognises authenticity, however advanced their dementia. Of course, this takes time – something that carers often complain there isn't enough of.
Authentic interest is like those 'blink' moments – you know it when you experience it, but it's not so easy to describe. It is more like a state of being. When we talk of being authentic it’s a kind of spiritual state associated with being 'ourselves' and being open.
People with nonjudgmental attitudes are almost always authentic. Having positive regard for others means accepting people with completely different life experiences or different opinions with interest, respect and dignity. Authenticity always leads to meaningful dialogue and generates better understanding between people – cats or no cats.