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Communicating With A Loved One Who Has Dementia
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Communicating With A Loved One Who Has Dementia

August 21, 2015

When caregiving becomes stressful or frustrating, difficulty communicating with the person you care for often worsens your state of mind. Whether you’ve transitioned your loved one to a memory care community or you are continuing to provide care at home, the ability to talk to him or her is important.

These tips won’t all work for everyone because it’s a situation that affects people differently. Try some out and see how it goes, noting which methods are the most effective. You may also want to seek out online caregiver forums to ask for advice and share your own with people in a similar situation.
Elderly Woman with granddaughter outside

What are common communication issues?

Because dementia directly affects the brain, speech and language are going to be inhibited over time. The disease damages synapses, which facilitate the connections between neurons. People with dementia may have a hard time remembering the correct words to use. This can cause the person to substitute words where they don’t make sense or lose the thought he or she was about to share. Those who have dementia may say offensive and inappropriate things or take a long time to understand what someone else has said. 

Usually people with dementia will go through a phase of repeating the same word or question. This can be one of the most frustrating behaviors for caregivers to manage because answering over and over again may become annoying. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, seniors with dementia may begin this behavior if they are anxious, bored or scared, among other reasons. It’s important to remember that loved ones aren’t being repetitive on purpose and that the behavior cannot be controlled. 

There are a few ways to approach loved ones who are persistently asking the same question. If it does seem to be triggered by anxiety or fear, do your best to comfort them. Try to distract them and avoid responding to the question or statement. Steer clear of telling them that they just asked that question or that they’re frustrating you.

Suggestions to improve communication

  • Be straightforward: Start conversations by introducing yourself, including your relation to the person with dementia. Throughout the conversation, address your loved one by name and stick to clear and simple sentences. Yes or no questions may make conversation easier. However, you may have to break questions down into smaller pieces that can be easily digested. The FCA recommends avoiding pronouns or abbreviation to reduce the potential for confusion.
  • Use nonverbal cues: Though language is failing them, they may still be able to pick up on visual cues without problem. The Mayo Clinic recommends showing that you’re listening by making eye contact. You can try to hold hands or put your arm around a loved one if talking isn’t going well, and it could be very reassuring for him or her. Your facial expressions will also give your loved one clues about what you’re saying.
  • Give them time: Because people with dementia have to work harder to find the correct words, they shouldn’t be rushed, interrupted or criticized during conversation.
  • Be respectful: Loved ones may still pick up on rude behavior, like speaking about them as if they aren’t there and using baby talk when addressing them. It’s also better to assume they can understand what you’re saying instead of the other way around.
  • Stay calm: Your loved one can likely tell by your tone of voice if you’re growing frustrated. It will also help if you remember that none of his or her behavior is a choice so anger would be misdirected. Avoid arguing with your loved one because over time, people with dementia will lose reasoning and judgment, rendering arguments fruitless.
  • Set the scene: A quiet place is best for conversing with someone who has dementia. Background noise and potential distractions should be kept to a minimum, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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