Tips for Communicating with Someone with Dementia

Posted on February 7, 2022

two womenCaring for a loved one with dementia can present communication challenges that at times can feel overwhelming for the individual, as well as for family or other caregivers. Commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia is a general term that describes the deterioration in cognitive function. Most notably, it involves memory loss, thinking and reasoning, language skills, and other social abilities. With the rising numbers of people with dementia in the US, partly due to the aging population of baby boomers, dementia is the leading cause of disability and dependency among the elderly. More and more of us will be impacted by the challenges of this growing issue.

What You Might Expect
With the variety of common symptoms you may be likely to observe with dementia, it can be distressing to see your loved one’s decline. Their capability to understand and remember basic facts, names, places, or routine activities can severely affect their daily life. In conversations, you might notice things like: they have trouble finding the right word, repeating stories and questions, or losing their train of thought. Their ability to think rationally and clearly will change. They may have difficulty expressing themselves or understanding you, and you may have trouble understanding what they are trying to say. As their functions continue to diminish, dementia can have a profound effect on the way they are able to communicate.

The Importance of Communication
text - communication remainsOur capacity to communicate not only allows us to exchange ideas, wants, and needs, but also helps us convey who we are and connect with each other. Losing the power to communicate can bring about confusion, misunderstanding, and frustration for the person with dementia. It can also be frustrating and upsetting for their caregivers and families.

It may be painful to acknowledge that a loved one can no longer communicate the way they used to, but it is important to know that communication does remain possible. Understand that communicating with someone with dementia will be different. You may think that you are being clear, but their dementia has affected how your message is being processed. Since the way that they send and receive information changes, you will need to make changes in how you communicate as well.

Some Strategies and Techniques
You can’t control how dementia affects your loved one, but you can be aware of the barriers that may be present and learn new ways to communicate. In general, you will need to be patient, be a good listener, and find strategies and techniques to improve conversations with your loved one.

Though different for every individual, these general tips can help make communication easier. Try to:
  • Find a quiet and comfortable setting. Limit distractions that make it more difficult to hear or concentrate by turning off the TV or radio.
  • Speak in a natural, calm, and friendly tone of voice
  • Keep it simple and use short, concise sentences, focusing on one idea at a time
  • Allow plenty of time for what you have said to be understood
  • Be respectful, do not speak to the person with dementia like a child or worse, speak as if they are not even there
  • Use orienting names, such as, “Hi, it’s me, Bob”
  • Offer comfort and encouragement. If they are having trouble communicating, let them know it's OK.

It’s Not Just the Words Being Said
The volume, inflection, and pace of speech as well as nonverbal facial expressions, gestures, and posture can often speak more clearly than words. Tone of voice, body language, and physical contact can become significant communication tools to someone with dementia. Some nonverbal communication techniques to consider:

  • Make and maintain eye contactholding hand
  • Stand or sit where the person can see and hear you as clearly as possible
  • Try to make sure your body language is open and relaxed
  • Gently touching, hugging, patting, or holding the person's hand can give comfort and reassurance, but make sure that they are comfortable with this
  • Using visual cues and gestures can help promote understanding, for instance, pointing at an object or a picture of someone you are talking about
  • Be aware of how loudly, slowly, or quickly you are talking
  • Be consistent, making sure your body language and facial expressions match what you’re saying
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh. Humor can lighten the mood and can help lift spirits.

Remember, communication is a two-way process. Your ability to listen and how you respond can also help you and your loved one with dementia better understand each other.

Some Communication Don’ts
In addition to understanding some successful tips and tactics, it is important to know some behaviors and conversations to avoid.

  • Don't ask broad, open-ended questions. Instead of “What would you like for lunch?”, offer a simpler choice, “Would you like scrambled eggs or a tuna sandwich?”
  • Don’t interrupt. Unless they are asking for help, give them the time and opportunity to speak or respond.
  • Don’t argue, confront, or raise your voice. This can lead to more frustration and even anger. It’s best for everyone to remain calm.
  • Don't complete their thought if they have trouble remembering a word. Give them a chance to recall it.
  • Don’t put them in a position to have to guess. ”Do you remember who this is and their name?” A better approach is, “This is my friend from work, Susan.”
  • Don't overlook their feelings. If they are unhappy or not having a good day, acknowledge that.
  • Don’t criticize, correct, or remind them that they forgot something.
  • Don’t take it personally. Memory loss isn’t intentional and continues to decline, so always be forgiving.
Finding what works best for your circumstance takes time, practice, and patience. There are a number of organizations, associations, and other resources available offering more ideas and best practices.

Maintaining a Bond
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia and with its progressive nature, it will likely become more and more difficult for your loved one to communicate. Even though they may be losing their memory, they still have feelings and emotions, so try to be supportive and enjoy your good times together.

Communicating with someone with memory loss poses many challenges, but it can also be very rewarding for family and caregivers. Adapting to the changing realities of dementia and applying the strategies and techniques that work best for your specific situation, can help you and your loved one continue to communicate and remain connected.


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