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What Should You Not Say to Someone with Dementia?

Written by CircleOf Staff
March 09, 2022
What Should You Not Say to Someone with Dementia?
Dementia can be frustrating for family and the person who has it. We have some communication advice on things not to say to someone with dementia conditions.

Dementia affects the brain and memory, thinking, reasoning, social skill, and behavior. It can be difficult for people living with dementia to deal with some conversational topics and questions of well-meaning friends and relatives.

When caring for a loved one with dementia, remember that their emotions and impulse may not be the same as they were before. Though it is challenging to see your loved one change and struggle with memory loss or confusion, you can manage what you say and do.

How to have good conversations with people with dementia can vary from day to day, but generally, we recommend the following:

Things to Avoid Saying when Communicating with an Individual who has Dementia (the DON’Ts):

  • You must have forgotten
  • Do you remember...
  • There is nothing wrong with you
  • You are just getting old
  • Luckily, you don't need to worry about [blank] anymore
  • It's all in your head

How to Communicate with an Individual who has Dementia (the DO’s):

  • Be patient and give a lot of time for them to comprehend what you have just said
  • Respond to how they are feeling rather than what they are saying
  • Repeat instructions in the same way, do not change your phrasing
  • Give simple explanations
  • Be cheerful and easy-going

Dementia can cause mood swings and behavioral changes that are surprising to you. This can be difficult for caregivers to handle. Try to be patient and understanding.  You are there because you care about them.  Love and compassion are where the conversation starts.

people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  ― Maya Angelou

So, What Should You Not Say To Someone With Dementia?

“Did you forget?”

Or "don't you remember?" Dementia is not being forgetful – it’s a condition that affects the ability to think, remember, and communicate. Telling someone they've forgotten something reduces their dignity and may make them scared or frustrated.

Be understanding and patient. Try something like, “Tell me about your day.” Ask questions that do not have a right or wrong answer and allow them to indicate what they know right now. 

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

One of the most frustrating things about having dementia is the feeling that you’re constantly being misunderstood. From the outside, dementias can be an "invisible" condition. Comments like “you don’t look ill” can add to the confusion. 

Cognitive impairment may cause people with Alzheimer’s or dementia to believe nothing is wrong.

Please don't make assumptions about their condition, and always speak to them with respect. And if you’re unsure what to say, ask them how they feel and enjoy their company. 

“You’re just getting old.”

It’s a common phrase that people often say to dismiss someone else’s memory loss or confusion. But if the person you’re saying it to has dementia, you’re invalidating their experience and minimizing their condition. 

If someone has progressive dementia, it may damage their brain in a way that makes it difficult for them to know what’s happening to them.

“You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Someone with dementia still has thoughts and feelings and experiences happiness and sadness. They are not relieved of worry and stress. They may have even more to worry about as their condition progresses. 

They need your support, not your pity, so telling them they are lucky not to worry about anything anymore is dismissive and insensitive.

“It’s all in your head.”

This is probably one of the worst things you could say to someone with dementia. It cannot be fixed by thinking positively or snapping out of it.

Dementia is a physical illness and should not be dismissed as ‘all in someone’s head.’ It implies that they are making up their symptoms or are crazy. Neither of these is true.

“You’re better off not remembering”

Some people with dementia may choose to forget certain parts of their life due to the distress it causes them. This may be a personal choice and should be respected. Telling them that they are better off not remembering is dismissive.

Instead of saying any of these things, try to communicate with the person respectfully and clearly. Ask them about their day, what they’re enjoying, or if you can get them a beverage. When stuck, try for yes or no questions to get things back on track,

See things from their perspective, and be patient. 

Other Tips:

Don’t tell them they are wrong about “facts” 

To help avoid anger and humiliation, do not contradict or correct them if something is wrong. There’s really no benefit to doing this. If they are aware enough to realize their mistake, they’ll feel bad about it and may even get angry. 

On the other hand, if they do not understand their mistake, correcting them may cause increased confusion or embarrassment. People experiencing dementia often react in ways that show they are stressed.

Don’t argue

It can be frustrating when someone with dementia doesn’t understand what you’re saying. But arguing with them is the last thing you would want to do. 

Explain things in simple terms and offer easy choices when possible.  Don’t take anything they say personally. They’re not trying to be difficult; they’re just communicating how they can.

Have a judgment-free mindset. Dementia can make it hard for someone to understand what’s happening around them. Conversations can be overwhelming.

Being right is not the point

These conversations are not about making a point or being right. You can go along with the ride instead of getting into an argument. Being right doesn’t matter. For instance, if they told you something you’ve never heard or seen or things that didn’t happen, you can say you’d forgotten that. Let them express what they want and refrain from correcting their ideas.

woman talking with her mom

Woman speaking with her mom calmly and with respect. Her body language is relaxed, positive, and encouraging with a gentle touch of reassurance.

Family Caregiver Support Tips

Tips to help make caring for a loved one with dementia easier:

  1. Educate yourself about the disease and what to expect.
  2. Take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.
  3. Be kind and forgiving.
  4. Create a family and friends support system to help you through the tough times.
  5. Find ways to connect with your loved ones, even if they can no longer communicate verbally.

Dementia care isn’t just about calculating dollars and cents, it also adds a tremendous scheduling, transportation, and emotional burden for primary caregivers. When we say take care of yourself, try anything you can to do it.  We know it is tough.

Meditations for Caregivers and Those Facing Cognitive Decline

We have partnered with Headspace because there is science behind their resources like mindfulness and meditation practices. Read more about their research on activities that can support caregivers and people who are experiencing cognitive decline.  

“A regular meditation practice may aid in preserving brain gray matter and in reducing risk for cognitive decline.” The mindfulness study author, is Kim Innes, MSPH, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, West Virginia University School of Public Health. 

If you’re concerned about Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline in your family, or simply want to protect yourself against age-related memory issues as best you can, give meditation a shot.

For caregivers specifically check out the Headspace program called, “Be Kind to Your Mind.”  This ten minute breathing technique helps you keep perspective of what is happening with the people you take care of.

Find more joy, less stress, and the best sleep ever with Headspace.Start Your Free Trial
Experience the benefits of meditation

Studies have shown that meditation exercises may improve cognitive function.

CircleOf is designed by a team of experts in the field of caregiving. We created the app for unpaid family caregivers.  It has various resources, including a shared calendar to track visits, appointments, and tasks. 

Additionally, the real-time messaging system will help keep everyone up to date and share photos and stories.  You can be as prepared as possible for your next conversation.

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About the author: CircleOf staff writers are experienced, family caregivers.

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