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Tips for Better Communication with a Loved One with Dementia

By Julie Hayes | 04/15/2021

A caregiver and older adult enjoying a conversation

Dementia can affect the way someone communicates in many different ways. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, throughout the progression of a loved one’s disease, they may have difficulty finding words, describing objects, keeping his or her train of thought, avoiding excessive repetition and organizing their words logically. 

As caregivers, we may find ourselves struggling to communicate with a loved one in the way we used to. It may be difficult to understand what a loved one is trying to say, and in the busyness of everyday life, we may find ourselves growing frustrated and impatient. However, these kinds of feelings may in turn affect a loved one, leading to a communication breakdown and potential relationship strain. To avoid this, it’s important to foster good listening skills, patience and respect.

To communicate better with a love one with dementia, we can consider the following tips recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association and Dementia Friends USA:

  • Be mindful of our tone and expression. A loved one will most likely pick up on impatient, annoyed or frustrated tones and body language, which can in turn increase their own frustration and distress. Using a positive tone and friendly, interested expressions can go a long way in making our communication smoother.
  • Be patient and encouraging. According to Dementia Friends USA, it may take up to twenty seconds for a loved one with dementia to process what we’ve said and formulate a response. If we interrupt or move on too quickly, a loved one may lose their opportunity to answer our question and may become upset or confused. Instead, we should give them time to respond and let them know we are interested in listening to them.
  • Simplify our speech. Using short, simple phrases can make it easier for a loved one to understand our meaning and respond.
  • Be as clear as possible. Using pronouns or vague terms for objects and places may cause confusion. In place of saying something like “Come here and pick it up,” we should instead say “come to the sink and pick up your toothbrush.”
  • Ask only one question at time. Even people without cognitive loss have trouble remembering each question when they are asked several at the same time. It can be even harder for a loved one with dementia, and the confusion may leave them unable to respond to any of the questions we’ve asked. Instead, we should wait to ask the second question until they’ve answered the first.
  • Find ways to turn questions into statements. In some cases, questions are necessary to better understand a loved one’s needs. Other times, questions can overload a loved one with potential options and responses, and can sometimes give them the opportunity to refuse something they need to do, such as bathing or taking medication. Instead of saying, “Do you want to take a bath?”, saying “It’s time to take your bath” can help with getting a loved one to take the necessary action quicker and with less difficulty.
  • Help them complete their thought if they’re struggling. If a loved one can’t find the word, name or memory they’re looking for, we may be able to help by picking up context clues and guessing their meaning. However, we should be careful not to interrupt a loved one too often or bombard them with rapid-fire guesses.
  • Avoid talking about the person as if they aren’t there. Loved ones with dementia deserve our dignity and respect. If we are in a caregiver role, it may feel natural to take the lead at health appointments and talk to doctors and specialists about a loved one’s care. But if a loved one is in the room and listens to us talking about them without consulting them or taking their thoughts and preferences into account, it can feel frustrating. If a loved one is able to participate in discussions, we should let them have their say, and take their wishes into account. 
  • Avoid criticizing, correcting or arguing. A loved one may at times do something incorrectly or unusually, or may use the wrong word when communicating. It may be tempting to correct them, but first, we should ask ourselves how much the mistake matters. If we can understand the meaning of their words, it’s easy to let it go. Is a loved one filling in a Sudoku puzzle with random numbers? If it doesn’t bother them, it doesn’t need to bother us. However, if a loved one is doing something dangerous or going somewhere they shouldn’t, it’s OK to step in. A calm approach such as saying, “Let’s go somewhere else” instead of “Don’t go there!” may prevent agitation.

To learn more about these communication techniques, we might consider looking into attending a Dementia Friends training online or a live session offered in our community. Dementia Friends can provide perspective and understanding on what dementia is and how it affects people, which can help us better understand the way a loved one communicates.

If we’re still struggling with communication, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. If we talk to a loved one’s doctor about situations where they particularly struggle with or resist communicating, together we may be able to pinpoint possible stressors or triggers to avoid in the future. The Alzheimer’s Association also has a 24-hour dementia helpline at 800-272-3900 to assist those who need information and support quickly. Additionally, the long-term, care-coaching program WeCare…Because You Do can help us put together an action plan to address communication and care needs for both ourselves and the loved one we care for. 

This article was written for the Expansion of Dementia-Capable Communities within Urban and Rural Settings in Ohio using Evidence-Based and Informed Programming project, a grant funded by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) . Learn more here.    

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