Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking aspects of caring for a person with dementia is the feeling that you are losing the ability to connect with them. Maybe you used to enjoy long, stimulating conversations and you feel a profound sense of loss as you notice your loved one’s communication skills slipping away. As a person’s dementia progresses, they may have more difficulty with short-term memory and comprehension, or they may become frustrated when they can’t find the right words to express themselves. Many dementia patients also make inappropriate comments, become demanding, easily frustrated, and even sarcastic or verbally abusive.
As challenging as it may be at times, communicating with your loved one with dementia is important for both of you. It is possible to adapt and stay connected. Keeping their needs in mind as time goes on can spare both of you a lot of frustration.
7 Tips for Communicating With Someone With Dementia
What You Say
1. Keep it Simple.
Since people with dementia often have difficulty with processing, it is important to speak slowly and use simple words and sentences. It’s a good idea to avoid using pronouns, referring to people by their names whenever possible. Talk about one thing at a time rather than changing subjects rapidly. If you need to give directions, avoid giving multiple steps at once. Instead, tell the person what they need to do next, and be prepared to prompt or remind along the way.
2. Ask the Right Questions.
Open ended questions can be frustrating for a person with dementia. It’s better to ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Avoid giving too many choices. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want for lunch today?” ask, “Would you like a sandwich or a bowl of soup?”
3. Talk About What They Can Remember.
A person with dementia may have trouble remembering what happened yesterday, but may be able to recall events from many years ago with amazing clarity. Engaging in conversation about the good old days can be calming and reassuring. Many dementia patients can also remember music and lyrics from their younger days, so singing with them is often a welcome activity as well.
What You Don’t Say
How you talk to a person with dementia is just as important as what you talk about. Non-verbal communication and environmental factors can do a lot to put the person at ease and remove obstacles to communication.
4. Avoid Distractions.
Having too many things competing for their attention can limit a dementia patient’s ability to focus on and understand even a simple conversation. You may find that shutting off the TV, closing the door, or moving to sit in a quieter room may improve the quality of your communication.
5. Communicate Without Words.
Nonverbal communication can sometimes help to clarify what you are talking about. Using gestures to describe something or changing your tone of voice to convey a specific mood can give extra meaning to what you are saying. You can also use nonverbal cues to communicate that you care about and respect the one you are talking to. Maintaining eye-contact, smiling, or putting your hand on a person’s arm can do a lot to reassure them that you value them and care about them. It may also ease any anxiety your loved one may be feeling about their challenges with communicating.
6. Be Respectful
Even though a person with dementia may not be capable of understanding what they used to, it’s important to avoid speaking to them as if they were a child or using any other condescending manner of speech. If you show that you respect and value them as adults, they will understand that and will be much happier interacting with you than if they feel you are looking down on them.
Have Realistic Expectations
Because of the limitations brought on by their condition, communicating with dementia patients can be challenging. And, since dementia will inevitably progress and any dementia patient will have good days and bad, you will find yourself constantly having to adjust your approach. Don’t get discouraged!
7. Be Patient
Don’t be surprised if you have to repeat yourself, maybe even several times, before your loved one fully understands what you are telling them. Usually, it’s best if you don’t rephrase your statement. Just slowly say exactly what you said before. Don’t be too quick to move on with the conversation. A person with dementia may need some extra time to process what you’ve said, gather their thoughts, and frame a response. Resist the urge to correct inaccurate statements that your loved one makes.
If you can see that your loved one is getting too frustrated by a particular conversation, it’s okay to distract them and redirect to something else. First, acknowledge how they feel by simply stating something like, “I can see you’re feeling sad. I’m sorry you’re upset.” Then distract them by asking for their help with something or suggesting a walk or some other enjoyable diversion.
It is possible to connect meaningfully with a dementia patient, even as their disease progresses. The key is to be flexible and understanding.
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