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Insightful tips for communicating with a parent who has dementia or Alzheimer’s

Are you having difficulties communicating with your ageing parents? Sometimes it feels like learning a new language when talking with someone who has dementia. These insightful and tested tips can help improve your communications with a loved one.  

Caring takes many forms and it has many challenges, but if you are living with a parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s, communication can be one of the most difficult barriers. Wandering or short attention span, difficulty with comprehension, and frustrating repetitions are just the tip of the iceberg.

We often find ourselves asking how to talk to a parent with dementia, but the answer will vary from person to person. While the internet is full of forums for carers and relatives of people living with dementia, your case will always be a tiny bit different from someone else’s. However, there are some universal truths that we have encountered within our villages and our clients’ homes.

Being a carer and communicating with your loved one is certainly not a walk in the park, but it can be made easier with these tips and tricks.

Remove all distractions, like the TV or radio

Before starting talking 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 parent’s sight and sit or stand at their level so you’re not looming over them.

Be careful not to approach your parent 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 them and they will be more likely not 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. This will help you in getting a suitable response.

Use positive body language

Make sure that your words and body language are in sync – always go into a conversation with a smile and a relaxed attitude. This will help your parent 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 come into the talk with a clear idea of what you want to say, and that you don’t talk on longer than you have to. Use basic language and try to avoid slang, nicknames, and idioms. Give simple explanations. By keeping it simple and brief you will help your loved one grasp the main message more easily.

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.

Give your loved one time to respond

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 want coming up with a response. It isn’t their fault, and they can’t help it.

Accept what your parent 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, or scenarios which don’t have much to do with reality – then 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 the situations in which they believe they are – 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 your self in a frustrating loop of distress and confusion. When this arises you may fell like you have nothing left in your tool box of communication tips. If you find your parent is getting very distressed and nothing else will working, it might be best to drop the topic. Go into each conversation aware that sometimes, you might just not get a response you want. In order to avoid bad turning worse, distract and redirect. Try changing the subject or the environment by asking 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, you will just have to abort mission and come back to the topic on a better day.

Communicating with a parent with dementia is one of the biggest challenges of this awful disease. Some days will be better than others, and what works today might not work tomorrow. This is just the reality of dementia, and no matter what we carers do, it’s best to acknowledge the situation we’re dealing with. And when the going gets tough, remember to bring along your sense of humour! We don’t stand a chance otherwise, so why not try and see the funny in the most absurd of situations?

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