Communicating with someone with dementia is challenging on many levels – not only does memory loss make conversation strenuous and frustrating, but the person’s difficulty expressing and understanding ideas often results in confusion and discord. Worse still, witnessing the decline of reasoning and functioning in a loved one is very upsetting and disheartening.
The Power of Communication
There is nothing that can alleviate the emotional impact of seeing a loved one becoming a shadow of their former self, but communication with them can be greatly improved with a supportive attitude and a number of effective conversational mechanisms.
And warm, meaningful communication matters a lot – it makes people with dementia feel that they’re valued and not alone. It also helps ease the stress of family members and caregivers by reminding them that their loved one may be struggling, but they’re still in there.
So, how do you talk to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia? How do you stay connected with a loved one affected by the disease, share what matters to you, make them understand what they need to know, and show them that you care?
Here are a few tips for talking to people with dementia that will help you maintain a close and affectionate relationship with a loved one living with the disorder:
Provide a Positive and Supportive Environment
All types of dementia – including Alzheimer’s, the most common one – result in communication difficulties. The disease damages the brain, progressively impairing a person’s ability to think, process information, make decisions, and manage their emotions.
In the early stages of dementia, the affected individual may have trouble staying focused and remembering recent events and conversations. They may be telling the same story and asking the same question over and over again. As dementia progresses, their cognitive abilities decline further and they may not even be able to recognize family members or remember important events in their lives.
To be able to communicate with people struggling with the disease, you need to create a pleasant and supportive environment where they feel safe, comfortable, and relaxed:
- Limit distractions to help your loved one focus their attention and energy on the conversation – close the door, turn off the TV, sit in a quiet corner of the room, etc. The mind of a person with dementia does not allow for complicated thinking, so you can’t expect them to carry on a meaningful conversation and watch the TV or play a game with you at the same time.
- Sit close to your loved one (but not so close that you are in their personal space) and make sure they can see and hear you clearly. Try to position yourself on the same level as the person, do not stand over them.
- Establish a calm atmosphere, not a challenging one – open the conversation in a positive way (a reassuring statement, a funny comment, an affectionate gesture) and provide your loved one with the support they need instead of probing and prodding with questions.
- Keep your voice clear, calm, and soothing to provide a sense of safety and warmth.
Speak Simply and Patiently
So, how should you talk to someone with dementia? If suffering from Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, your loved one will have difficulty understanding and processing information, so you need to explain things in a clear, simple way and give them time to think over your words:
- Speak slowly and use short, simple sentences.
- Use words and phrases the person is well familiar with.
- Don’t use figures of speech as it is very difficult for people with dementia to interpret abstract ideas.
- Break up new information into smaller pieces to make it easier for your loved one to understand the facts and remember them
- Pause between sentences to allow the person enough time to process what you’re saying and respond
- Repeat or rephrase, if necessary.
- When giving instructions, use exact, short phrases. Give only one instruction at a time. If you have to repeat it, say it in exactly the same way you did the first time.
- Focus discussions on a single subject to minimize confusion and frustration.
- Keep separate conversations brief and to the point.
- Say the person’s name several times during the conversation to get – and keep – their attention.
- Unless you need to give instructions or provide essential new information, stick to topics from the past (such as family, pets, former home, former job, travels, etc.) when talking to someone with Alzheimer’s.
Communicating with someone with dementia may be frustrating, but you need to remember that your loved one is doing the best they can and it’s not their fault they’re struggling. Provide as much support as you can and try to tune into their feelings and needs.
Encourage Your Loved One to Share Their Thoughts and Feelings
Your family member may not be able to clearly express themselves and effectively communicate wishes and needs when affected by the disease. You need to help them find the right words and explain their thoughts and feelings:
- Be patient – Give your loved one time to think and speak at their own pace. Oftentimes, people with dementia have to pause to gather their thoughts or need to retell the same part of a story several times before they can move on to the next part.
- Ask supportive questions to keep the story going.
- Listen attentively to what the person is saying. Let them finish speaking without interrupting or completing their sentences – this may make them angry or embarrassed, or it may break their concentration or pattern of communication. If they have difficulty finding the right word or finishing a sentence, ask them to explain their thoughts in a different way.
- Encourage your loved one to share stories from their childhood, recount happy memories, and bask in their achievements – this will make them feel good and will ease their anxieties and frustration at the present situation.
- Use pictures, music, and other appropriate props to provoke your loved one to talk or help them better understand what you’re talking about.
- Include your family member in regular everyday conversations, even if it doesn’t matter what they respond. Being included will help them keep their sense of identity and self-worth and will reduce feelings of exclusion and isolation.
- Stimulate the person’s mind with interesting, thought-provoking activities – large puzzles, word games, card games, books, etc.
Prevent Confusion and Conflicts
It is common for people with dementia to feel sad, anxious, upset, and even angry. They may be acting in an agitated way, speaking abusively, or appear unconcerned about you or other family members. It’s the progression of the disease that causes such offensive behavior, so try to remain patient and avoid confrontations.
Do your best to prevent confusion and tension during conversations:
- Refrain from asking too many questions and avoid complicated questions altogether. Your loved one will likely not remember or won’t be able to find an appropriate answer and may become frustrated or withdrawn. So, try to communicate in a normal, conversational way, not question after question – your aim is to have an encouraging conversation, not an interrogation or a memory test.
- Avoid open-ended questions – Phrase questions to elicit simple “yes” or “no” responses and give your loved one simple choices to encourage decision-making (too many options can be confusing and frustrating).
- Refer to people by name and avoid terms like “he” or “they” to prevent confusion and misunderstanding.
- Listen carefully to what the person is saying and pay attention to nonverbal cues as well (body language, tone of voice, facial expression) – check to see if you’ve understood correctly and always look for the meaning behind what they’re saying.
- Don’t challenge your loved one when they are wrong about something – As dementia progresses, the person may become confused about what is true and not true and may say things that are incorrect. If it’s not something really important, let the false statement go – just drop the subject and take the conversation in a new direction. Contradicting the person directly is likely to make them anxious, upset, or angry, so you’d better simply allow them to be wrong and move on. It can be quite disheartening to know that your loved one is having a hard time grasping reality, but getting into an argument will do neither of you any good.
- Never argue – you cannot win an argument with a person with dementia as they are not thinking rationally nor reasoning logically.
- If a conversation seems to be upsetting or confusing your loved one, shift the topic or suggest an alternative activity.
- Don’t allow resentment, anger, or frustration to come out in your conversation – such negative emotions will only make things worse. If you feel like you can’t take it anymore, take deep breaths or get out of the room for a moment to calm yourself.
Use Non-Verbal Communication
An open smile and a gentle touch can work wonders when talking to people with dementia. It doesn’t just improve communication – it reassures the person and makes them feel loved. So, make sure you use physical contact and positive body language to convey your care and provide reassurance to your loved one:
- Smile warmly to show that you’re glad to be there.
- Keep eye contact with the person when talking to them to ensure that their attention is focused on you and what you’re saying.
- Make sure that your body language and facial expression match what you are saying to make it easier for your loved one to grasp your meaning.
- Use hand gestures in combination with your words.
- Do not grimace when they say something inappropriate.
- Give your loved one nonverbal praises such as smiles and head nods when appropriate.
- Use physical contact to get their attention, convey your feeling, and provide reassurance – give the person a pat on the shoulders, hold their hand, put your arm around them, etc., when it feels appropriate.
- Learn to recognize what a person is communicating through their body language.
- Respect your loved one’s personal space – do not stand too close or over them as it can feel intimidating. Drop to their eye level to communicate – this will help the person to feel more in control of the situation.
- Be kind and compassionate.
Show Respect and Compassion for Your Loved One
Your family member may have fewer abilities and behave irrationally at times, but the person you knew and loved your whole life is still “in there”. So, make sure you treat them with care and respect:
- Don’t talk to them as if they’re a young child – use a respectful tone of voice and don’t talk down to the person.
- Don’t use terms of endearment instead of names, appellatives, or titles – words like “dear”, “honey”, and “sweetheart” may feel patronizing for people with dementia and cause them to feel belittled, even if you mean it genuinely in affection. Using their names and appropriate titles helps keep their dignity and aids concentration. It also helps you remember the person they were before the disease took over.
- Avoid speaking sharply or raising your voice – use a clear, soothing tone of voice to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s. Only talk loudly if the person has a hearing problem.
- Don’t ignore your loved one – never talk about them as if they’re not there, inform them about everything that concerns your family, and don’t dismiss their worries or neglect their feelings.
What matters is to keep the conversation positive and affectionate, so that both you and your loved one benefit from the experience.
Get Professional Help
However patient and compassionate a person may be, communicating with a loved one with dementia can be devastating. It’s common for family members to feel frustrated, helpless, and depressed as they witness a loved one succumb to these diseases. An experienced professional can help relieve the stress – a qualified caregiver will not only provide assistance with daily routines, but also offer emotional support and friendly companionship.
At Assisting Hands Home Care, we provide dementia home care to keep your loved one safe and engaged in their own home. We take a person-centered approach to Alzheimer’s and develop our care plan around the individual, not the disease.
Our experienced caregivers have the knowledge and tools to understand who the person was before the disease and what dementia stage they’re currently at. They will show compassion and respect to your loved one and engage them in enjoyable activities, interesting conversations, and mind-stimulating exercises to keep them mentally stimulated, socially active, and happy.
Schedule a Consultation
Assisting Hands Home Care provides peace of mind for you and your family and a greater sense of happiness for your loved one struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Call us at 305-274-6471 for more communication tips and detailed information about our home-care services.