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Dementia – Communication Tips

Brain pathways become damaged with dementia.  These brain changes make it difficult for a person with dementia to say what they want as well as understand what others are saying. Your loved one may have trouble coming up with the right words or a name, or may invent new words. At times, they may repeat a question over and over.

You can expect that over time, a person living with dementia may struggle to organize their message, lose their train of thought or speak less  often.

What You Can Do:

  • Be present. Let your loved one know you’re listening and trying to understand. Keep your voice gentle. Hold the person’s hand while you talk. Smile, nod, make appropriate eye contact.
  • Show respect. Offer your loved one undivided attention, don’t multi-task. Include your loved one in conversations, don’t talk about them as if they weren’t there.
  • Avoid distractions. Background noise, like TVs or radios can compete for attention.
  • Position yourself. Be close enough to be heard and seen clearly. Sit or stand at the same level, rather than standing over them.
  • Get hearing checked regularly. If the person uses a hearing aid, check that it is working and inserted properly. When speaking, turn your face towards them and make sure your face is in the light so they can easily see your lip movements.
  • Keep it simple. Use short sentences. Ask one question or offer one instruction at a time. It usually helps to use “positives”—say “Let’s go here” vs. “Don’t go there.” As the disease progresses, ask questions that require a yes or no answer.
  • Allow time and be patient. Slow pace of speech slightly and allow time for the person to process and respond. Try to avoid interrupting. If you’re feeling rushed or stressed, take some time to calm down.
  • Focus on feelings. Listen for the meaning behind the words. Their tone or body language may provide clues. Respond to the emotions.
  • Offer comfort. If a person with dementia is having trouble communicating, let them know it’s OK. Offer hugs, or hold hands as appropriate.
  • Use visual cues. Gestures or other visual cues can help promote better understanding than words alone. Rather than asking if your loved one needs to use the toilet, walk them to the toilet and point to it. Demonstrate a task first.
  • Watch your tone and manner. Try to keep your voice gentle. No one likes to be talked down to or criticized. Try not to sound “bossy.” Use friendly facial expressions and non-verbal communication that conveys “calm.” A person with dementia responds to others’ moods, if you’re upset, they may become upset too.
  • Avoid quizzing and arguing. Instead of questioning or correcting your loved one, listen for the messages in what they’re saying. Try to avoid arguing—no one will “win” and it will only lead to embarrassment, frustration or anger.

Keep in mind that it’s important to remember that your loved one isn’t trying to be difficult—the disease has changed their brain. Do your best not to take communications and behaviors personally.

It’s also important to know that these are offered as suggestions—we encourage you to forgive yourself when things don’t go as well as you want them to. It can be helpful to talk with others in the same situation to get more ideas and support.