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Tips on Communicating with a Loved One with Dementia

Woman speaking to elderly man

It can be painful, even frightening, to watch the deterioration of the once-bright and active mind of a family member suffering with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. What can begin as simple forgetfulness can slowly turn into serious and extreme impairment and as it progresses, our loved one’s ability to function independently disappears, as well as certain personality traits that defined that person.

Our usual ways of communicating won’t work anymore. A new understanding of how to communicate must be learned. We know it isn’t easy, so we want to cover some tips that will be helpful in connecting with your elderly loved one.

It’s sad that dementia can cause a person to go about their lives as mere shadows of who he or she used to be. But please know this does NOT mean the person with dementia is just an empty shell. Far from it! It’s just that the “shell” has difficulty opening, and on some days, the shell might stay closed altogether. But just like the old, tightly closed oyster shell, inside is a precious treasure – the pearl! It’s that pearl we need to remember and be patient with that stubborn outward shell

When you learn how to gently get that shell open, you’ll have meaningful communication with your precious family member who is afflicted with dementia, however brief that window of opportunity may be. It takes certain tools to shuck an oyster, and even some skill. The same principle applies in connecting on deep level with your family member who suffers from dementia.

We offer you our best tips to help you communicate with a loved one who suffers from moderate to severe dementia.

  1. Do your homework and be well-informed about this disease. Dementia grows worse over time. People with dementia gradually will find it more problematic understanding what was once normal conversation and instructions.
  2. Find the perfect place. Avoid distractions at all costs. If you want to talk, look for a time and place that is quiet and without other people in the room. Make sure the TV or radio isn’t playing in the background. This will allow for total concentration on the conversation.
  3. Speak in your natural voice. Use a calm voice and by all means, don’t speak more loudly than you normally would. Remember – your loved one is not necessarily suffering from a hearing loss because of the dementia. Don’t use “baby talk” which can come across as condescending.
  4. Be specific when talking about other people. If someone has a name, use it all the way through the conversation. If you mention your son, David, for example, call him David each time you mention him. Don’t switch over to “he,” thinking the dementia sufferer will make the connection. Odds are, he won’t. When greeting a dementia patient, use his name. Say, “Hi Grandpa, it’s Jane.”
  5. Don’t skip around. Instead, talk about one subject at a time. A person with dementia probably can’t juggle different topics mentally, and won’t be able to follow the conversation threads.
  6. Use body language. It’s simple, but don’t forget to always maintain eye contact. Smile a lot. Pat a hand or shoulder; touch can be important. In fact, when dementia becomes advanced, sometimes nonverbal language is the only option you’ll have. If you start right away using these nonverbal cues, it won’t be a giant leap for you.
  7. Listen carefully. Pay close attention. If something is said that you truly can’t figure out, just gently and politely say so. You might have to ask a question or two to give the senior a chance to communicate more clearly.
  8. Don’t play school teacher. You won’t get very far with a conversation if you are focused on correcting every wrong statement made. Sometimes the delusions are real and nothing you say is going to change it, so just move on.
  9. Patience really is a virtue. Your family member suffering with dementia will need a little extra time to process and understand “normal” conversation. When you ask a question, be patient when waiting for the answer. It’s so easy to get frustrated, but please resist the urge.
  10. Understand there will be peaks and valleys. Although dementia always worsens over time, it doesn’t mean it’s a slippery slide downhill. There will be some days that are better than the one before. Enjoy these good days, while keeping in mind tomorrow might be a valley.

For information on how we can help you or someone you know with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, contact us today!

Home Helpers of Lake Country is a locally-owned, trusted home health care agency and offers quality, compassionate senior in-home care services including home care assistance, personal care, companion care, respite care, Alzheimer's & dementia care as well as homemaker services in Oconomowoc, Dousman, Beaver Dam, Hartland, Summit, Okauchee, Watertown, Delafield, Wales, Chenequa, Johnson Creek, Lake Mills, Juneau, Ixonia, Nashotah, and Concord.