Its all in your head

How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

Written by Vivienne Piong

| 4 minutes
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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 it’s music or other people’s conversation, can distract and trigger confusion. It’s important to find a place where your loved one can focus on his or her thoughts without being disturbed by external things. 

Take it slow and prioritize clarity

When having a conversation with your loved one, always 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. 

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 to not 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’re not recalling anything from the memorabilia, it’s best to change the course of 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. This can be beneficial to both the caregiver and the one being cared for. 

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 less of a probe and 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. Always remember that lashing out or cutting them off can only lead to anxiety and weaken the connection you have with each other. 

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

Tech is your friend

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, compared to just hearing your voice over the phone.

Follow their schedule

Plan your visit around a time of the day you know your loved one is more receptive to conversation. Consider their routine and mood to find the right opportunity to engage in conversation. Some can get confused and anxious in the late afternoon or early evening, so it might be better to look for another opportunity. Having a log of times and the kind of conversation you had with your loved one can help you determine the best hour to call or visit in the future. 

Conversation goes both ways

You don’t have to always be the one steering the conversation. Allow your parent to talk about whatever they’re feeling at the moment. It’s important to give them a space to freely express their thoughts or emotions. No matter the topic, just be present and enjoy the ride.

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 just 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.

Try to make them 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. 

Mind the feeling, not the fact

People with dementia often have challenges with their memory, and their stories reflect this. If your parent is talking about their own grandparents like it happened just last week, humor them. Go along with their story instead of correcting them, which will only end up causing negative emotions. Instead, be there as they relive a memory and focus on how they’re feeling. This will give you insight on how to approach certain topics in the future.

Caring for a parent with dementia can be challenging, but also very rewarding. Always remember that you’re not alone in this. CircleOf can help take some of the load off your shoulders by helping you manage caregiving tasks with other members of your family. So just take it one day, one conversation at a time. 


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