If someone you love has dementia, don’t give up on trying to communicate! Dementia is a progressive disease that causes loss of brain function. Over time, dementia makes it more and more difficult for the patient to use spoken language and to understand what is being said in conversation.
Try these tips to improve communication with your loved one:
1) Control the Physical Environment
• Limit distractions
• Get on his level
If your loved one is sitting or lying down, position yourself so you are at eye level or slightly below eye level. Standing over him may make him feel insecure or unsafe, and may make communication more difficult.
• Eye contact
Make sure you have your loved one’s full attention by establishing eye contact.
• Physical helpers
Your loved one may forget to put on glasses or hearing aids. Make sure those physical helpers are in place and in working order to help with communication.
2) Be Mentally Prepared for the Conversation
• Be patient
Your loved one is probably more frustrated than you are when he can’t find the right word or make himself understood. Be patient and let him know that you want to understand. Don’t interrupt if your loved one is still trying to find the words or finish a thought.
• Be reassuring
Dementia can cause fear, anxiety and low self-esteem. Reassure your loved one that it is okay when communication is difficult.
• Listen for meaning
Even if your loved one is using the wrong word, you may be able to figure out what he is trying to say. Don’t try to force him to use the right word or correct him if he uses the wrong word. Repeat back what you think he said to see if you understood correctly.
If he is stuck on a word, offer a guess or two, but don’t make him frustrated if you can’t come up with the right word together.
• Focus on emotion
Pay more attention to the emotion he is trying to communicate, rather than the words he is using, to really understand what he wants to say.
• Don’t argue
Whether you disagree with an idea or know what your loved one is saying is not correct, don’t argue. Arguing may make him upset, which will make communication even more difficult.
• Think beyond words
Encourage your loved one to use hand gestures or point at objects to help you understand. Do the same for him — point to an object, or show him how to do an activity.
3) Communicate Clearly
• Use proper names
When you first come into the room, call your loved one by name, say hello, and remind your loved one who you are. Be sure to say your name or relationship, rather than just saying “It’s me.”
• Think about your tone of voice
No matter how the conversation goes, always speak slowly, clearly and use a friendly tone of voice. Frustration or anger in your voice may make him upset or cause him to shut down.
• Control your body language
If you are angry, frustrated or impatient, your loved one may mirror your emotion which will make communication even more difficult. Try to keep your body and facial expressions relaxed and friendly.
• Choose words carefully
Avoid using pronouns such as “that” or “it.” Use words that are specific, more often than you normally do. For example, keep using the word “hat” or “toothbrush” over and over rather than switching to the word “it.”
• Keep requests simple
Break down tasks into simple steps and ask your loved one to do them one at a time.
• Use positive statements
Instead of telling your loved one what not to do, focus on the positive. For example, say, “Why don’t you sit in the blue chair?” instead of saying, “Don’t sit on the couch.”
• Ask easy questions
Keep it simple by asking yes or no questions, or let him choose between two simple options.
• Be patient
Don’t try to rush the conversation or demand a quick response to what you say. Keep sentences simple, and allow plenty of time for him to think through what you said, and figure out how to answer.
Even when conversation is difficult, remember to treat your loved one with dignity and respect. A touch of humor shared between you can help both of you relax and enjoy your conversation.
If you have questions about dementia or how to improve communication, talk to your health care provider.
Alzheimer’s Association. Communication and Alzheimer’s. Web. August 4, 2015.
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Communication: Techniques. Web. August 4, 2015.
WebMD Caring for a Person With Dementia. Web. August 4, 2015.
Reviewed August 7, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith