Dementia is a progressive illness that, over time, will affect a person’s ability to remember and understand basic everyday facts, such as names, dates and places. Communicating with someone who is living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia can be an enormous challenge due to the effects of the disease on the brain. It will gradually affect their ability to present rational ideas and reason clearly.
It can also make them act in frustrating or unexpected ways. It’s important to remember that the disease causes their behavior. Consequently, it’s helpful to learn some practical strategies for dealing with challenges that might come up when interacting with your loved one. Here are some approaches for how to communicate with dementia patients.
Smile and make eye contact
Although people with dementia have problems understanding what people say to them, they’re sensitive to the way people say things. Your attitude and body language communicate your feelings and thoughts more strongly than your words. A genuine smile can reduce the chance of challenging behaviors since the person may feel reassured by your nonverbal communication.
Take your time
Give the person some time to respond to questions. It takes dementia patients longer to process what you are saying.
Speaking to a dementia patient in an irritated tone of voice can agitate them. A calm voice can comfort them, so try to speak in the most positive way possible.
For example, your loved one might repeat the same questions over and over again. Try to figure out why they’re asking those particular questions. Perhaps they’re worried about getting to an appointment on time. Instead of saying “I just said that your appointment is at 2 p.m.,” try saying, “Don’t worry, I’m going to go with you to your appointment.”
Avoid talking about reality
Your loved one can become confused about reality and might not be able to distinguish between the past and the present. They might even forget who you are. Although that can be painful, don’t push to make them accept your version of reality, which will just cause more confusion and tension.
For example, instead of saying “You can’t call your dad, as he died a long time ago,” say “Your dad probably isn’t home right now. You should call him later.”
Make your words easier to understand
Speak slowly and clearly. Use simple words and short sentences. Break long actions into smaller steps.
Don’t use slang or figures of speech
As dementia progresses, it can become harder for someone to understand what you’re trying to tell them. Telling a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease that it’s “no use crying over spilled milk” might result in him looking to see where the milk has spilled, rather than comforting him or encouraging him not to focus on a past problem.
Try not to talk down to your loved one or treat them like a child. Ironically, this is sometimes called “elderspeak.” Regardless of how much the person with dementia can or cannot understand, treat them with honor and use a respectful tone of voice.
Not only does arguing increase everyone’s stress level, but people with dementia often genuinely feel confused. Remember, it is the disease causing this behavior. If you find yourself getting frustrated and ready to argue, take a break.
Use body language
Finding the right word to identify or describe something can be difficult for people with dementia. Encourage them to use gestures to describe what they are trying to say, and you can do the same. If your loved one is not understanding what you mean when you say “Wash your hands,” you can pantomime rubbing your hands together, or even go into the bathroom and demonstrate.
Show love and affection
While some people might get defensive if you break their bubble of personal space, many appreciate a gentle touch. Take the person’s hand, or give them a hug or kiss if you (and they) are comfortable. Physical touch has been shown to have many positive benefits for people in all stages of dementia.