Communicating with someone who has dementia
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 loved one 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 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, too, and giving your family member or friend time and space to express their feelings.
- Involve your loved one 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 their full attention before speaking. It will probably help to minimise external noises, which could interrupt or distract from the conversation, such as 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. Rephrase and reword your points.
- Be a good listener. When your loved one talks to you, give them your full attention so they know that you’re listening.
- Tell them what you have understood and check with them to see if you're 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 them 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 loved one 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. They 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. 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’re saying.
- Never stand too close or stand over someone to communicate as this can feel intimidating. Try sitting opposite them, so that you can see each other’s faces and body language.
- 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 plenty of encouragement, both verbal and non-verbal.
- If they get upset, give them time to compose themselves – perhaps take a short break and make a cup of tea.
If your loved one has dementia, you may need to take a different approach to discussing care options.
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