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How to communicate with someone with dementia: tips and techniques

How to communicate with someone with Dementia: tips and techniques

Communicating with someone with dementia may become increasingly challenging in terms of how they are able to communicate with you, and you with them. Of course it’s about speech and conversations, but increasingly it will be about non-verbal communication, listening and observing.

You may find yourself trying to continue to have the kind of conversations you’ve always had; you may also find that as their health declines they start fewer conversations and speak less.  Frustrating, frightening and heart-breaking, for everyone. 

Small comfort but there are techniques and practical things you can do to maintain and help the communications with your loved ones.

Why communication becomes difficult

Any type of dementia can lead to problems with language because the disease can damage the parts of the brain that control language.  It may depend upon the stage someone is at, the type of dementia and how they manage language problems. The effects on communication and language may include: 

have they written a will
  • Inability to find the right words
  • Using related words (photograph/painting)
  • Using substitutes for words (that woman/Mary)
  • Jumbling up words and sentences
  • Revert to mother tongue/language first learnt

Dementia may also affect the way someone thinks which can impact their ability to follow a conversation or to respond appropriately. This might happen because they are thinking more slowly, not able to focus on the conversation or no longer understand what is being said.

It is worth nothing that problems with communication can also be affected by pain, illness or medication. 

If you notice a sudden change in someone, it could be Delirium, which needs to be treated quickly. 

Think Delirium purple

4 Tips on how to talk to someone with Dementia

This may all sound a bit obvious but it’s so easy to carry on as usual and then get increasingly frustrated when you’re trying to communicate with someone with dementia….

1. Think before you speak

  • Is there a better time of day for your relative when they’re more relaxed/engaged
  • Is it nice and quiet, can they see you easily
  • Speak clearly and calmly using short simple sentences
  • Don’t ask question after question and allow time for them to process and respond
  • Don’t finish their sentences for them – how annoying is that for anyone?
  • Don’t speak to them like a child – ditto above
  • If you ask a question, make it direct and not open ended or complicated. “Would you like a cup of tea”?  Not “Would you like a drink – tea or coffee – or something else”?
  • Stick to a few subjects, not wide-ranging conversations from politics to history and what’s on the tv tonight..
  • Humour is often the best antidote to misunderstandings and mistakes

2. Watch and learn

  • Communication with someone with dementia may become more about what they don’t say
  • Become an active listener – watch for non-verbal communications
  • Use eye contact – there’s nothing worse than someone looking over your shoulder as they speak to you…
communication tips dementia
  • Turn the tv or radio down and minimise other distractions so you can focus
  • Physical contact – hold their hand or pat their arm as reassurance that you’re listening 

3. Encouraging conversation

  • Your relative may stop making conversation – try to encourage it for as long as possible
  • Don’t assume they don’t want to contribute to a conversation – bring them in too
  • Give them time to say what they want to say
  • Let them speak for themselves during discussions particularly about their own welfare or health issues – don’t get into the “does he/she take sugar” mode of communication
  • Body language once again – if conversation is difficult they may communicate in other ways
  • Humour – as above – so often the antidote to awkward moments and frustration 

4. What should you not say to someone with dementia?

“Remember when…….” Frustrating and painful if you actually can’t remember

“Your wife died a year ago…..” so brutal even if it is the truth and feels like you’re on an eternal loop

“I’ve just told you that….”this is your frustration and not their problem

“What did you do yesterday….. ” too open-ended – be more direct – did you like the park yesterday?

“Shall we go to the garden centre, have a look around, buy a plant and then have lunch?……” too many questions. Let’s go to the garden centre.

None of this is simple, particularly whilst you’re also caring for someone with dementia, and all the time watching them disappear. There is help available through organisations such as Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia UK.  There are wonderful memory cafes in many towns, where carers and those living with dementia meet up for a chat together – particularly great for carers.