10 Tips for Communicating with Individuals with Dementia

Individuals living with dementia experience the disorder differently, and their care partners often feel the impact of the symptoms in a variety of ways.

In the middle stage of the disorder, communication is one of the key skills affected. The deterioration of expression often occurs just as people with dementia require increasing levels of help — causing challenges for friends, family members and other care partners struggling to provide the best possible care.

What are some of the ways you can improve communication and decrease stress as you care for an individual with dementia?

Create a Positive Atmosphere

Try to create a positive environment for your loved one by speaking in a pleasant voice and using friendly facial expressions. Even if your loved one becomes nonverbal, he or she will pick up on your feelings through your body language and overall demeanor.

Limit Distractions

Individuals with dementia can become agitated by various noises, so try to keep TVs and radios turned off most of the time. When you’re speaking to someone with dementia, be sure to say your name and your relation to them. Move down to eye level to help focus the person’s attention. If there is environmental noise, move to a quieter location or close the door.

Speak Simply and Slowly

Use a reassuring tone and speak slowly, using simple words. Try not to raise your voice as you speak; if you need to repeat your statement or question, use the same phrasing.

Ask Single Questions and Offer Choice

Try to ask only one question at a time. Where possible, stick to questions that require “yes” or “no” answers. Asking questions with multiple choices may result in confusion or frustration. However, offering choice is important — just limit the choices to two. When possible, use visual prompts to show the individual the available choices, such as different foods.

Wait for a Reply

Be patient as you wait for the person with dementia to respond to questions. It can take someone up to a minute or more to process what you have said and formulate a response. If the individual is having trouble responding to you, suggesting words may help. In addition, observe body language and nonverbal cues that may indicate the individual’s meaning and feelings.

Make Tasks Manageable

By breaking down tasks into several smaller steps, you can make them more manageable for an individual with dementia. Work through each step one at a time, providing gentle reminders of what will come next. Use hand motions and other physical demonstrations to help illustrate the step. If the individual cannot complete tasks on their own, you can offer assistance.

Change the Subject

If the person with dementia becomes upset or frustrated, you can move to a different environment or change the subject. Make it clear that you empathize with the person’s feelings as you suggest an alternate locale or activity.

Offer Support and Reassurance

Rather than trying to convince an individual with dementia that he is remembering an event incorrectly, offer physical and verbal statements of support and comfort. Gentle touching — including holding hands — can sometimes encourage the individual to respond when other methods fail. Follow the thread of the remembrance, asking for details about the story or how it made them feel.

Talk About the Past but Don’t Test

A person with dementia may not remember events that occurred in the short term, but she may recall events from her distant past. Instead of asking questions that call on short-term memory, ask general questions that help the individual recall her history. Don’t test the person with questions like “Do you remember…” but instead ask more general questions like asking about a favorite trip, job or meal.

Try to See the Humor

Caregiving for an individual with dementia can be a stressful and frustrating experience. When possible, try to use humor that allows you and your loved one to share joy and laughter together. Focus on and celebrate the strengths that remain.

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