Talking with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia can be challenging. Learning a few dementia communication techniques makes it easier to connect with them and enjoy meaningful time together. Superior Senior Care shares 15 tips to help you communicate better with someone who has dementia.
Living with dementia can be difficult. It takes a toll on everyone involved, especially if outside caregiving services aren’t being used.
Conversations can feel loaded with emotions like sadness, anger, or fear. Unfortunately, when we add those emotions, it can make speaking with your older adult harder than it needs to be.
Instead, keep these 15 helpful tips in mind when you’re communicating with someone who has dementia.
1. Take a moment for yourself
It can be challenging to see someone living with dementia. We may feel a wide variety of emotions which can influence our own behavior.
Take a minute to ground yourself before engaging in conversation. No matter how advanced their dementia is, the person you care about is still in there – and they still care about you, too.
2. Stay positive, warm, and calm
Someone with dementia can pick up on emotions, especially if they don’t match the tone we’re trying to use.
Remember that this is someone you care about. You want to show that you care about them and the time you have together.
3. Remove distractions
Like any person, someone with dementia may struggle with communication when there are distractions around.
Televisions, radios, and kids running around can easily catch our attention. What is vaguely distracting for us, though, can be torturous for people with dementia.
To minimize these distractions, make sure all electronics are off or in quiet mode. Ask other people to either leave the area or switch to a quiet activity.
Observe the environment or check in with any in-home caregivers to see what other distractions may need to be removed.
4. Identify yourself
When someone has dementia, they may not remember immediately who you are.
Make sure to gently let them know your name and how you’re related. This can help bring back memories as well as help them feel safe.
If they seem especially confused, having another person like an in-home caregiver introduce you can help them feel more comfortable.
5. Speak slowly
Take time to slow down when you speak. It can help give time for them to absorb what you’re saying and make connections.
6. Use shorter sentences and smaller words
Run-on sentences and large words can be confusing. Try to avoid that if you can.
Use one sentence at a time, pausing to let your older adult digest what you’ve said before continuing. The amount of time you need to pause may change day to day.
7. Be direct
To avoid causing confusion, say exactly what you mean.
If you’re referencing an object or another person, use the name or point rather than using pronouns. And when talking about a person, state their relationship to you and to your older adult.
8. Don’t make assumptions
It can be tempting to finish someone’s sentences or even assume that they don’t want to participate in a social activity.
Avoid doing this as much as possible. Your older adult deserves to have a say in activities they participate in as well as knowing you’re there for them.
Interrupting or excluding sends a message that you do not believe they are capable of a conversation or socialization.
9. Practice active listening
Active listening is a form of communication that lets the other party know you’re listening. Nodding and responding in validating ways help people feel that you want to hear more.
That said, some active listening skills could be more distracting than helpful for some people or in some situations. For example, using small encouragement words such as “uh-huh” might do more harm than good.
Take some time to experiment and evaluate what works best. If your older adult receives caregiving services, consider asking their caregiver for input as well.
10. Don’t block the conversation
It’s okay to have boundaries around what you will and won’t discuss. However, there are some roadblocks to conversation that you should avoid.
Avoid asking “Why…” or forcing your older adult to talk about something when they’re not in the mood to do. That tends to shut down productive conversations.
Most importantly, resist the urge to interrupt. The flow of the conversation will be disrupted. Focus on listening to them rather than speaking.
Instead of trying to prevent someone from doing something potentially dangerous, work to redirect them towards a safer or more positive activity.
12. Give a choice between two things or ask yes or no questions
It’s much easier to communicate when you are given a choice between two different things.
Instead of asking someone what they want to eat for lunch, make suggestions. For example, you could ask “Would you like chili or a sandwich for lunch?”
This allows your older adult to focus on choosing between two clear options instead of having too many ideas and becoming overwhelmed.
Asking yes or no questions works in a similar way. Instead of asking what someone wants to drink, ask “Would you like some water?”
13. Remember that body language sends a message
Making eye contact can help your older adult know that you are listening. Try to match your body language to the emotion you want to express.
14. Consider non-verbal forms of communication like writing
It’s important to find the communication techniques that work best for you and them. Depending on how your older adult is feeling, verbal communication may not be their first choice.
Some people do better when they can take their time writing a note (or even an email) versus having a spoken conversation. Writing gives them more time and can also help them catch mistakes like choosing an incorrect word. That might help someone feel more comfortable interacting with others.
Remember to use the other senses too. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch can all be vital in communicating.
15. Most importantly, be there
Most of what matters when visiting and spending time with someone with dementia is exactly that – the time together.
Getting assistance from caregiving services can also help make the time you spend together more enjoyable, especially if managing essential daily tasks is becoming overwhelming.