Communicating with a Loved One Who Has Dementia

A lot of changes can occur as our loved ones start growing old, and one of the most prominent of these changes is the development of dementia. According to the CDC, “In more than 90% of people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms do not appear until after age 60. And the disease increases with age and doubles every 5 years beyond age 65.” Having a loved one that is aging with dementia can be difficult to face, and even harder still can be trying to navigate daily conversations with them. Paying attention to how you speak, the words you use, your body language, and what’s going on around you is all very important when trying to speak with a loved one who is suffering from memory loss or other cognitive impairments.

Understanding dementia: Knowing what dementia is and how it affects the people that suffer from it can help you begin to approach your loved one with a greater awareness of what they’re going through. Dementia encompasses a complex set of symptoms and will affect everyone differently. There are a variety of sources you can pursue that will help you in your journey to better understanding what your loved one may be going through. Organizations such as  Alz.org or the National Institute on Aging have great information to get you started.

Speak clearly: Speaking clearly is a good skill to have when communicating with anyone, and will certainly have a positive effect when speaking with someone who suffers from dementia. Talking to them in a warm and calm voice can help avoid confusion, ease any fears they may have, and make it easier to communicate with them. Avoid things like “baby talk” and talking too loudly, as you don’t want to come off as insensitive to their symptoms.

Use proper names: Phrases like, “Hi grandpa, it’s me” can be very confusing for someone who may not immediately recognize who they’re speaking to. Avoid using pronouns like he, she, they, or me and use proper names to make it easier for them to identify who you are or who you’re talking about. When saying hello, try something like “Hi grandpa, it’s your granddaughter, Kristen”.

Stay focused: Keep in mind that someone with dementia may have a more difficult time following a convoluted conversation. Try to keep to one topic and avoid asking too many questions that may seem interrogative. Speak in an area that doesn’t have a lot of distractions, such as other people talking or TV sounds in the background.

Non-verbal communication: Nonverbal communication can reinforce a normal conversation, helping your loved one better interpret the meaning behind your verbal cues. Lots of head nods and sometimes even hand gestures are helpful and clear ways to communicate. Be sure to practice this early on when you’re talking to them, along with other positive body language cues such as eye contact, smiling, and gentle positive body language.

Knowing more about dementia and putting these communication tips into practice can help you better communicate with loved ones who are suffering from dementia.

For more information about dementia, we encourage you to speak with a doctor and visit resources such as Mayo Clinic, the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.