Communicating with Someone Who Has Dementia
There is a lot to learn when caring for a loved one with dementia. These communication tips will support you on your journey and help you to maintain your connection…
Changing the way you communicate with a loved one does take some time, but your efforts will show that you care. By trying out some of these tips, you are helping your loved one to feel a sense of control and self-worth.
And when you understand how to talk to your loved one without causing confusion, you can better enjoy the time you spend together.
You are going to find yourself in many different situations, so we asked our CAREGivers for the most common communication barriers and how to overcome them. These are their top tips to help you know what to expect and give you ideas for how to manage different conversations.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone. Almost 1.6 million Australians are involved in the care of someone living with dementia, and many of these people are family and friends. So we’ve also provided useful resources and a real care story for you below.
Try these five communication tips when talking to your loved one
1. Use calm, clear verbal communication
By focusing on your loved one, their interests and what they can do, you will find that you are able to support them and provide interest in their day.
The most important thing is to be positive in the way you communicate, even when you feel frustrated.
- Remain calm and speak in a gentle, matter of fact way.
- Focus on one idea or question at a time.
- Phrase questions for simple yes or no responses. For example, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ instead of ‘Would you like a drink?’
- Allow plenty of time for your loved one to process what you have said and respond.
- Provide context for people and places during conversation. For example, ‘your son Gary’ or ‘your hometown Geelong’.
- Focus on what your loved one can do rather than what they can’t do or remember. This makes them feel valued and boosts their self-esteem.
- Try not to talk over loud background noise such as the TV. Silence any distractions, then focus on your conversation.
- Avoid negative statements. Instead, use empathy and positive statements to show your loved one you understand.
2. Be mindful of your non-verbal communication
Be aware of your body language and attitude, because people with dementia can still read your non-verbal cues – even if they have trouble communicating verbally.
That means if you become tense or agitated, your loved one will pick up on this. On the other hand, gentle and caring body language will put your loved one at ease.
So keep these non-verbal communication tips in mind when talking to someone with dementia.
- Try to maintain eye contact.
- Speak at their eye level, so they can see your expression.
- Keep your body language, tone of voice and facial expression relaxed.
- Use body language, hand gestures and facial expressions to explain something.
- Use gentle touch on the person’s hand or shoulder, if appropriate.
3. Reduce confusion around the home
Research has found that the familiarity of the home helps a person with dementia to feel comfortable, safe and secure.
However even a familiar environment can cause confusion due to memory loss and the perception difficulties people living with dementia sometimes face.
These ideas will help to prevent your loved one from becoming disoriented in the home, alleviating the need for you to constantly communicate simple tasks and explain where they are. This will also benefit your loved one by maintaining their sense of independence and control.
- Put labels or pictures on cupboards and drawers to make items easier to find.
- Put labels on doors to each room of the home.
- Label family photos to assist with memory, particularly those on display.
- Remove any photos, artworks or mirrors that are causing confusion.
- Remove any rugs, wall coverings and furnishings with strong patterns, so it is easier to identify objects in a room.
- Paint light switches in contrasting colours to the walls to make them easier to see.
- Try to find furnishings that are a different colour to carpets and the walls, so each item in a room is easy to distinguish.
- Keep items such as keys, wallet, mobile phone and glasses in the same place.
- Display important numbers by the phone.
- Put a note by the door with a reminder to take keys when you go out.
- Use a whiteboard to display information such as activities for the day, the date, expected visitors and upcoming appointments.
- Use apps like EasyPhone or Senior Safety Phone that allow your loved one to make calls using photos.
4. Be prepared for refusal and confusion
Dealing with frustration and resistance is a common occurrence.
Individuals living with dementia often experience frustration when they are unable to perform routine tasks, feel confused, or struggle to express themselves and understand others. As a means of reestablishing control, they may resort to behaviors like refusal.
When faced with confusion or resistance from someone with dementia, employing effective communication strategies can be helpful. If the person becomes angry, it’s best to avoid confrontation and instead divert their attention or suggest an alternative activity, such as reading a magazine together or making tea. Creating an environment where they feel safe, secure, and valued is crucial.
In situations where participation in an activity is met with refusal, it’s important to recognize that your loved one might be feeling confused or scared. Even simple tasks like taking a shower or getting dressed can overwhelm them. In such cases, staying calm and breaking down the task into simple steps while talking them through each step can be beneficial. Another approach is demonstrating the action for them to mimic or offering them simple choices so they can choose an activity they prefer.
Handling changes in behavior is one of the most challenging aspects of caring for a loved one with dementia. For more comprehensive guidance on managing behavioral changes, refer to our Dementia Care Guide for Families and Carers.
5. Gently encourage participation in activities
Even small activities like helping to set the table for dinner will give your loved a sense of accomplishment.
This makes it important for you to encourage participation in activities that will enrich your loved one’s day. The way you introduce and communicate activities will impact how receptive they are to participating.
- Avoid listing activities for the day, and instead focus on one activity at a time. For example, instead of saying ‘let’s have morning tea, and then after that we will go to the doctor and pick up some groceries’, focus on one thing at a time.
- Demonstrate activities you would like the person to engage in, so they are comfortable with what you are asking them to do.
- Establish activities into a routine to help with familiarity. For example, if you take a daily walk, do this at the same time. Or if your loved one likes going to church, choose the same day and time to attend each week.
- During reminiscing activities such as looking at photographs, provide gentle memory prompts but don’t press them to recall every detail.
When you are met with reluctance to participate in activity, your loved one may be experiencing anxiety or stress. Many of the communication techniques we have touched on will help with this:
- Start the activity on your own and demonstrate how it is done.
- Provide simple instructions.
- Simplify or modify the task into single steps.
- Invite them to participate by asking for help with the activity.
If you’re not sure what activities to try with your loved one, you will find a number of meaningful ideas in the Dementia Care Guide for Families and Carers.
Find the right support for you and your loved one
Research has shown that people living with dementia benefit significantly from remaining in familiar surroundings for as long as possible. But as their condition progresses, you may require dementia care in the home to give you a break.
A CAREGiver can also provide you with new communication ideas for managing changing behaviours and remaining connected with your loved one.
If you are wondering if dementia care is right for you, see Carol and Cornelia’s story. Carol was the only carer for her mother Cornelia, who lives with dementia, and she would worry about her mother every time she needed to leave the home. Read their Real Care Stories here to learn how they have each regained their independence.