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How to Talk to a Person with Dementia

Written by Vivienne Piong
October 21, 2021
How to Talk to a Person with Dementia
Table of Contents

Whenever a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, communication can be challenging, even more so when it’s your parent. People who suffer from Dementia or Alzheimer’s typically have trouble expressing their thoughts and relaying how they feel.

Despite the limitations, there are ways to help you retain your strong connection with a loved one. It’s important to stay patient and calm so that they won’t feel frustrated whenever they’re not able to communicate as they previously could.

Here are some tips on how to talk to a parent with dementia:

Less distraction, more conversation

A quiet place has always been conducive to conversation—this is especially so when you are dealing with a dementia patient.

Background noise, whether its music, tv or other people’s conversation, can distract and trigger confusion. Finding a place where your loved one can focus on their thoughts without being disturbed by distractions is important.

Take it slow and prioritize clarity.

When conversing with your loved one, remember that they’re not as quick to pick up on things as they used to. So speak clearly, and calmly. Then, give them time to take it all in. Don't rush responses.

You don’t have to increase your volume or over-explain what you mean. Just keep it short, sweet, and with pauses in between.

Remind them of fond memories

It pays not to come empty-handed. When you bring an old photo or play a favorite song, it can help remind your loved one of some of their fondest memories. This can be something the two of you can talk about at length.

However, pay close attention to their reaction. If they do not recall anything from the memorabilia, change the course of the conversation into something that won’t trigger feelings of frustration or anxiety from them.

Words are not the only way to talk.

Even before learning words, babies and very young children can understand feelings of being safe with a simple touch from a parent. The same principle applies when you’re caring for a parent with dementia.

There are times when a simple act of holding a loved one’s hand can communicate warmth and care more than if words were used. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Touch can beneficial to both the caregiver and the one being cared for.

Couple talking together with words, contact and touch. Conversation with someone with dementia needs to go at their speed.

Walk down memory lane, together

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of asking our loved ones if they remember certain people, places, or events in their lives. Despite the good intention, it can cause anxiety or feelings of frustration should your loved one fail to remember.

Instead, make the conversation more of a mutual reminiscing, where the loved one can chime in but would feel no pressure to do so.

Empower your loved one

Whenever they struggle for words, refrain from taking over and finishing their sentences for them. Patience is important whenever you’re talking to someone with dementia.

Rushing them, interrupting them or cutting them off can only lead to anxiety and weaken your connection with each other. You do not need to complete your loved one’s sentences; unless they ask you to.

Silence is part of the conversation.

Dementia changes people. Your once gregarious parent can be significantly less talkative than you’re used to. That’s normal.

Lulls in conversation are expected, to take the silence as part of the conversation and not something you have to fill in. Your presence is enough to comfort.

Tech is your friend

Talk with them however you can. Even if busy schedules, other responsibilities, or circumstances prevent you from visiting in person, you can still find a way to talk to your loved one. If you can opt for a video call, do so.

Seeing your face can be easier for them to engage with than just hearing your voice over the phone.

Follow their schedule and track it.

Plan your visit around a time of the day you know your loved one is more alert and receptive to talking. Consider their routine and mood to find the right opportunity to engage them in conversation. Some people with dementia can get confused and anxious in the late afternoon or early evening, so it might be better to look for another opportunity.

Create a log of times and the conversations you have with your loved one. This helps you track trends and communicate what's new out to the care circle. This helps everyone stay on the same page. Remember that all types of dementia are progressive. This means that the structure and chemical messaging of the brain will become increasingly damaged over time.

The conversation goes both ways.

You don’t always have to be the one steering the conversation.

Allow them to talk about whatever they’re feeling or thinking. Give them a space to express their thoughts or emotions freely. No matter the topic, be present for the ride.

It is easier for someone with dementia to follow brief, simple, and to the point conversations. For that reason, using short sentences and focusing discussions on a single subject helps minimize confusion and frustration.

Make your questions pointed.

The simplest way to start an activity or spark a conversation is by asking a simple yes or no question. Instead of giving them the task of thinking of an activity or topic, come armed with suggestions so they can choose whatever they feel most comfortable with at that moment.

Get moving

Find ways to stay active, even if it’s just walking around the house. Learn the things they like doing and spend time on them together. It can be something simple like bird-watching, or taking them out for a quick drive. These can go a long way in helping your loved one feel better.

Laugh

Laughter is one good way to release tension. Add humor to your conversation with jokes, funny anecdotes, or even through physical humor. It can help lighten up the mood and make the time spent together a highlight of the day for your loved one.

Hear the feelings, not the facts.

People with dementia often have challenges with their memory, and their stories reflect this. If they are talking about their own grandparents like it happened just last week, that is their reality right now. Don't correct them or embarrass them because that will only end up causing negative emotions. Be there as they relive a memory and focus on how they’re feeling. This gives you insight on how to approach certain topics in the future.

Caring for a parent with dementia can be challenging. Always remember that you’re not alone in this. CircleOf can help you share the stories and plan the visits with other members of your family and care circle. Keep the notes in your circle posts and in the calendar. So just take it one day, one conversation at a time.

References
Elderly man looking at in your eyes in a conversation

The Alzheimer's Society has lots of information that can help, including details on the progression of dementia and communicating.

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