10 tips for communicating with a loved one who has dementia or Alzheimer’s
Are you having difficulties communicating with your partner, ageing parents, or loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s?
Wandering or short attention span, difficulty with comprehension, and frustrating repetitions are commonly reported and can be both tricky and upsetting to navigate. Remember, you’re definitely not alone, and we’re here to help with some ‘tried and tested’ tips and tricks to improve communications and make the journey easier.
Remove all distractions, like the TV or radio
Before opening dialogue, make sure that your surroundings are ideal for an uninterrupted conversation. Turn the TV or radio off so there’s no background noise, position yourself in the line of your loved one’s sight, and sit or stand at their level so you’re not looming over them.
Be careful not to approach your loved one unexpectedly, as this can sometimes elicit aggression or distress. Approaching from the front gives the individual’s brain time to process your approach. These small steps will ensure that your loved one feels comfortable with questions you might ask, and they’ll be less likely to get distracted by surrounding noises.
Speak slowly and distinctly
When speaking to your loved one, make sure you do so slowly and clearly. Dementia can cause delayed comprehension, and so leaving pauses between sentences will help them understand you better. Don’t raise your voice as this may agitate them, instead, ask your question slower and in simple language.
Use positive body language
Make sure that your words and body language are in sync and always go into a conversation with a smile and a relaxed attitude. This will help your loved one feel at ease and cause less stress for both of you.
Keep conversations brief
People with dementia often have trouble following lengthy, complex conversations. Make sure that you approach the talk with a clear idea of what you want to say, and that you don’t converse for longer than you have to. Use basic language and try to avoid slang, nicknames, and idioms, and provide simple explanations. By keeping it brief and straightforward, you will help your loved one grasp the main message more easily.
Give your loved one time to respond
Following on from above, people with dementia take longer to process language. That is why it’s important to give your parent the time and space to respond to questions or queries instead of rushing them and making both of you frustrated in the process. Try and get used to longer pauses in conversation, and don’t get upset when they take longer than you’d like coming up with a response. Remember that they can’t help it and that remaining calm and composed is important.
Ask closed questions with limited possible options
When posing a question to your parent with dementia, fewer options will mean a quicker response. As much as you can, try to phrase questions so that they have a direct yes or no answer. For example, instead of asking, “What would you like for breakfast?”, you can ask “Would you like some scrambled eggs?”.
Use real names for people and objects
When talking about people or things, make sure you avoid ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’. Instead, use people’s real names and the name of the objects you’re referring to. For example, instead of saying “Do you like it?” ask “Do you like the music?”, or instead of saying “Hi. It’s me,” say “Hi mum, it’s Hannah.” This will help your parent with dementia better understand what you are talking about.
Accept what your loved one with dementia says
One of the golden rules of dementia is that you should not argue – some of us have definitely learned this the hard way. If your loved one starts going off on tangents that are untrue, such as acting like friends and family members long gone are still around, there’s no point in correcting them. Telling them that someone has passed away or that you aren’t really in their childhood home can upset them even more. Instead, go along with them. Ask if their long-gone spouse is comfortable or compliment the tidiness of the old family home that no longer exists.
Avoid finishing your loved one’s sentences
If your loved one struggles to navigate their way through a sentence and seems to have trouble finishing it, try and steer away from finishing it for them. Sometimes time is of essence but rushing them will make them frustrated and yield less success. If they are struggling to find a word, consider the context and other non-verbal clues, and ask a question that provides a helpful prompt. If your loved one with dementia is saying, “I would like… I would like…” respond by asking, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
As a last resort, distract and redirect
From time to time you may find yourself in a frustrating loop of distress and confusion. When this happens, you may feel like you have nothing left in your toolbox of communication tips. If your parent is getting very distressed and nothing else is working, it might be best to change the topic. Go into each conversation aware that sometimes, you may not get the response you anticipated. In order to avoid bad turning worse, distract and redirect. Try changing the environment, ask them to help you out in the kitchen, or go for a walk in the garden. Make sure you acknowledge (but not over-emphasise) their feelings and behaviour. Say, “I see you are feeling a bit sad – you know what would cheer you up? Some fresh air”. Sometimes, it’s best to ‘switch gears’ and come back to the conversation on a better day.
For other helpful resources related to aged care and age-related health management, click here.