Answering the Same Questions Over and Over: How-to Talk to People with Dementia

Watching the deterioration of a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is painful. As it progresses, minor forgetfulness transforms to a severe impairment.

Understanding how to both communicate and connect with our loved ones is crucial. However, few of us instinctively have the skills to communicate with a person with dementia. It’s something we must learn. By improving your communication skills your caregiving for a loved one will be less stressful and you’ll improve the quality of your relationship, too.

Good communication skills will also enhance your ability to handle the difficult behavior you may encounter as you care for a person with a memory loss illness.

Here are 10 tips from around the web on how to effectively communicate with someone who has dementia.

1. A Place for Mom suggestsRecognize what you’re up against. Dementia inevitably gets worse with time. People with dementia will gradually have a more difficult time understanding others, as well as communicating in general.”

2. “Get the person’s attention Limit distractions and noise — turn off the radio or TV, close the curtains or shut the door, or move to quieter surroundings. Before speaking, make sure you have her attention; address her by name, identify yourself by name and relation, and use nonverbal cues and touch to help keep her focused. If she is seated, get down to her level and maintain eye contact.‬”, says Next Avenue.

3. Next Avenue also recommends that you “State your message clearly Use simple words and sentences. Speak slowly, distinctly and in a reassuring tone. Refrain from raising your voice higher or louder; instead, pitch your voice lower. If she doesn’t understand the first time, use the same wording to repeat your message or question. If she still doesn’t understand, wait a few minutes and rephrase the question. Use the names of people and places instead of pronouns‬ or abbreviations.”

4. Another tip by A Place for Mom is to “Refer to people by their names. Avoid pronouns like he, she, and they during conversation. Names are also important when greeting a loved one with dementia. For example: “Hi, Grandma.  It’s me, Jeff,” is to be preferred over, “Hi. It’s me.”

5. Unforgettable stresses that it’s important to “Get your body language right. Stand or sit so you are both at eye level and they can see your body and facial expressions. Smile and make eye contact. This will help the person with dementia feel at ease, and therefore more likely to open up and chat, even if they don’t quite remember who you are.”

6. Be patient. Here, Unforgettable offers this suggestion, “The conversation may take longer than it used to but that doesn’t mean you should ‘hurry them on’ if they’re stumbling or grasping for words, or try to speak on their behalf. Don’t let frustration get the better of you. Just smile, relax and wait for them to finish what they’re saying. Make a conscious effort to speak more slowly yourself too, and if you realize that you’ve said something quite complicated, try re-phrasing it.”

7. Don’t infantilize the person. This is the advice of Esther Heerema, MSW, who explains, “Don’t talk down to the person or treat him or her like an infant. This is sometimes called “elderspeak” and it’s got to go. Have you ever observed how people talk to babies? They might use a high pitched tone and get close to the baby’s face. While this is appropriate for infants, it’s not fitting for communicating with adults. Regardless of how much the person with dementia can or cannot understand, treat him or her with honor and use a respectful tone of voice.”

8. “Consider using gentle touch to ask for their attention” is another tip suggested by Heerema. She says, “While some people might get defensive if you break their bubble of personal space around them, many appreciate a gentle touch. You could give a little pat on the shoulders or hold her hand as you talk with her. Personal touch is important and can communicate that you care.”

9. “Being Reasonable, Rational, and Logical Will Just Get You into Trouble”, cautions They explain, “When someone is acting in ways that don’t make sense, we tend to carefully explain the situation, calling on his or her sense of appropriateness to get compliance. However, the person with dementia doesn’t have a “boss” in his brain any longer, so he does not respond to our arguments, no matter how logical. Straightforward, simple sentences about what is going to happen are usually the best.”

10. The folks over at also suggest that we “Tell, Don’t Ask. Asking “What would you like for dinner?” may have been a perfectly normal question at another time. But now we are asking our loved one to come up with an answer when he or she might not have the words for what they want, might not be hungry, and even if they answer, might not want the food when it is served after all. Saying “We are going to eat now” encourages the person to eat and doesn’t put them in the dilemma of having failed to respond.”

Have you discovered tips that have helped you communicate with your loved one better? Please tell us about it.


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