9 Tips to Improve Communication with Someone Who Has Dementia

Patience and respect can make things easier on your loved one.

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- Posted on Jan 10, 2020

A caregiver communicating with an older loved one.

Julie Hayes is the Content Manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

It can be a challenge when dementia has altered your loved one’s ability to communicate with you. Struggling to understand one another can be tough when that used to come naturally. Although as a caregiver, you only want to help your loved one, you may find yourself frustrated and impatient at times. Maybe you interrupt when his or her words come too slowly. You might catch yourself correcting repeatedly, or even arguing, especially when you’re in a rush. As understandable as these reactions are, they do not serve your loved one, who needs your patience, respect and attentive listening in order to communicate as effectively as possible.

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

Coming across as impatient or upset with your loved one can trigger a communication breakdown and potential relationship strain. To avoid this, and to communicate more effectively in general with one another, consider the following suggestions recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association and Dementia Friends USA:

1. Pay attention to your tone and expression. Your loved one is apt to pick up on impatient, annoyed or frustrated tones and expressions. That can heighten his or her own frustration and distress. Using a positive tone and friendly, interested expressions and body language can go a long way toward easing communication.

2. Be patient and encouraging. According to Dementia Friends USA, it may take up to twenty seconds for your loved one with dementia to process what you’ve said and formulate a response. If you interrupt or move on too quickly, your loved one may lose their opportunity to answer your question and may become upset or confused. Instead, give them time to respond and let them know you are interested in listening to them.

3. Speak in short, simple phrases. Simplifying your speech can help your loved one to understand your meaning and respond.

4. Make yourself as clear as possible. Using pronouns or vague terms for objects and places may cause confusion. Instead of saying something like, “Put it down over there,” you could say, “Put the plate on the yellow placemat.”

5. Limit your questions to one at a time. Even people without cognitive loss have difficulty remembering questions when they are asked one after the other. It can be even harder for a loved one with dementia, and the confusion may make it impossible to answer any of them. For this reason, wait to ask the second question until you’ve gotten an answer to the first.

6. Look for ways to turn questions into statements. Asking questions is sometimes necessary to figure out what your loved one needs. Other times, though, questions can lead to an overload of possible choices and responses. Questions can give your loved one the chance to say no to something he or she needs to do, like taking a bath or prescribed meds. Rather than asking, “Do you want to take a bath?”, you could say, “It’s time to take your bath.” Making a statement can help with getting your loved one to take the necessary action quicker and more easily.

7. If your loved one has trouble completing a thought, offer help. At times, he or she may struggle to come up with a word, name or recollection. You may be able to fill in the blank by picking up context clues and guessing their meaning. Take care, though, not to interrupt too often or bombard your loved one with rapid-fire guesses.

8. Try not to talk about your loved one as if he or she isn’t there. People with dementia deserve dignity and respect. As a caregiver, you may be used to taking the lead at medical appointments and talking to doctors about your loved one’s care. But it can be frustrating for your loved one to hear you answer questions and provide information without consulting him or her. It’s important to allow people who have dementia to take part in such discussions if possible, and to take their wishes into account

9. Be careful not to criticize, correct or argue. Your loved one may at times do something incorrectly or unusually, or may use the wrong word when communicating. Your first reaction may be to correct him or her, but then, consider whether the mistake actually makes a difference. Did you get the meaning of the word, even if it was incorrect? If so, it’s easy to shrug it off. Is your loved one calmly filling in a crossword puzzle with numbers instead of letters? Why correct it? However, if your loved one is doing something dangerous or heading somewhere he or she shouldn’t go, it’s important to intervene. If this is the case, it helps to remain calm. Saying something like, “No, not that way!” can cause agitation. A better response may be, “Let’s go here instead.” 

To learn more about these communication techniques, consider looking into attending a Dementia Friends training in your area or online. Dementia Friends can provide perspective and understanding on what dementia is and how it affects people, which can help you better understand the way your loved one communicates.

If your loved one continues to struggle with or resist communication, consider reaching out for support. You may want to speak with his or her doctor to try to pinpoint possible stressors or triggers to steer clear of. 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 BRI Care Consultation™ at 216-373-1797 can help you put together an action plan to address communication and care needs for both you and your loved one. 

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