Often people with dementia experience difficulties with language and communication. Here we offer advice on how to overcome common barriers.
Most forms of dementia at some time during the progression of the condition affect a person’s ability to express themselves in some way. For example, your relative might experience difficulties finding the right words, or be too confused to get their point across.
People with dementia often communicate in different ways and getting to know these new ways of expression are key to minimising distress and maintaining understanding.
Difficulties with communication can be upsetting and frustrating for the person with dementia and for those around them, but there are lots of ways to help make sure that you understand each other.
Don’t forget that effective communication is a two-way street: it’s not just about expressing yourself clearly but listening to your relative too, and giving them time and space to express their feelings.
Support for people living with dementia
Use our Care services directory to find local support groups for people living with dementia, ranging from dementia cafes to Singing for the Brain groups and carer support charities.
- Involve your relative in conversations, both with yourself and others.
- Take time to think about what you say, and how you say it. Your words and tone of voice are both important.
- Avoid speaking sharply or raising your voice, as this may cause distress.
- Speak slowly and clearly, using short, simple sentences.
- Try to get your relative’s full attention before speaking. It might help to minimise external noises which could interrupt or distract from the conversation, such as from the radio or television.
- Laugh together about misunderstandings. The issues you’re dealing with are serious, but laughing together about misunderstandings and mistakes can lighten the mood and make you feel closer.
- Try different ways to get your point across rather than repeating the same thing over again.
- Be a good listener. When your relative talks to you, stop what you are doing and give them your full attention so they know that you are listening.
- Tell him or her what you have understood and check with them to see if you are right.
- Talk about them as if they were not there. Being included in social groups can help a person with dementia to preserve their sense of identity. It can also help to reduce feelings of exclusion and isolation.
- Expect your relative to respond quickly to questions. Don’t put pressure on them to answer quickly, as they could become frustrated or upset if they don’t know the answer.
- Ask your relative too many questions or ask them to make complicated decisions. Giving someone a choice is important, but too many options can be confusing. Try one question at a time, keep it simple, and consider asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no.
- Interrupt or finish sentences for them, even if you think you know what they're trying to say. It’s important that they can express themselves.
- Dismiss their problem. Your relative might sometimes feel unhappy and frustrated, and might just want someone to listen to how they feel.
Body language and physical contact
It’s important to remember that a lot of our communication is non-verbal, with gestures, facial expressions and body language telling much of the story. So if you know what to look for, these non-verbal signs can help you to overcome some language difficulties.
- A person with dementia may read your body language. Sudden movements or a tense facial expression may cause upset and make communication more difficult.
- Make sure that your body language and facial expression match what you are saying.
- Never stand too close or stand over someone to communicate: this can feel intimidating.
- Use physical contact when appropriate, such as holding a hand or giving a gentle hug, to show that you care.
- Show that you are listening by making eye contact, nodding and responding. Give your relative plenty of encouragement, both verbal and non-verbal.
- Discussing care options with someone who has dementia: helpful advice if you are finding it difficult to discuss care options with your relative.
- Managing your relative’s financial affairs: if you notice that your relative is starting to struggle with their finances, you may find this guide helpful.
- Sophie’s story: find out how Sophie helped her mum manage her finances when she was struggling with dementia.
Page last reviewed: May 2016
Next review due: August 2018