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How To Talk To Dementia Patients

Speak In Their Native Language

How to Talk to Someone With Dementia

The Alzheimers Association reports that, depending on the stage of dementia, older people may revert back to using the language they grew up speaking.

For example, my mother was born in Italy and grew up speaking Italian. She learned to speak Spanish when we lived in Venezuela and then she learned English when we moved to the United States. If she had been diagnosed with Alzheimers disease or dementia, she might easily have forgotten how to speak English and possibly Spanish as the disease progressed and revert back to Italian.

If this is true of your parent and you speak the language of their childhood, doing so can be a great way to overcome communication problems.

Frequently Asked Questions About Talking To A Parent With Dementia

Whats the difference between dementia and Alzheimers?

Alzheimers is a specific, degenerative disease of the brain. Dementia, on the other hand, is a general term for a group of symptoms. There are many types of dementia and a number of conditions that cause them.

How do you tell your mom she has dementia?

The best way to talk to a parent about their dementia diagnosis is to be direct, but loving and reassuring. You can tell your mom that shes been diagnosed with memory loss, but that youre there to support and help her. Depending on your parents situation, you might even consider using the words dementia or Alzheimers if they apply.

About the Author: Esther Kane

Esther Kane is a certified Senior Home Safety Specialist through Age Safe America. She also graduated from Florida International University with a BS in Occupational Therapy. She practiced OT in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina for 10 years. She specialized in rehabilitation for the adult population. Her expertise in home assessments and home safety issues for seniors will help you to make the best possible decisions for your elderly parent or senior that you are caring for.

Step Into Their World

A person with dementia might say something that is not true perhaps that they are leaving on a trip or that someone is on their way to pick them up.

Hartford advises trying to validate the feeling behind the statement.

You could say, I understand you are expecting a ride. Why dont you come with me and wait until your ride gets here? Hartford says. Step into their world and go along with them. The way their brain is changing, trying to explain why something is a certain way or not is not very fruitful.

If your grandmother thinks you are her long dead cousin, for example, sometimes its better to go along with it. People with dementia can forget their relationships with their spouses and other family members.

It can be emotionally challenging and really hard, Hartford says. But often it is not hard for the person with dementia.

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Top Communication Tools For Seniors With Dementia

Although dementia signs and severity vary, there are many communication tools for dementia and support techniques to improve conversations with your loved one. In general, its best to remain patient, clear, and understanding. Here are 10 Alzheimers communication strategies to help boost your bond with your loved one and improve communication.

Diagnosing Dementia The Proper Way

How to Communicate with A Person with Dementia

In order to be diagnosed with a type of dementia, the patient should go through neurological evaluations and cognitive testing. Common symptoms to look out for include:

  • Trouble completing everyday tasks such as cooking or cleaning
  • Inability to find things that have been misplaced
  • Confusion or disorientation, especially about the day or time
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Please try to eat this one spoon/forkful of ___________.
  • Let me help you.
  • What did you eat for dinner?

The questions above may trigger a distress behavior. If the person with dementia cannot remember what they had for breakfast, then why would you ask what they had for dinner? The idea is to give the person with dementia the chance for independent thinking without overwhelming demands.

For example, ask if they want a ham sandwich for a snack, which warrants a yes or no response, versus asking if they want a ham, turkey, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a snack. This gives the person with dementia control and minimizes frustration or anxiety when bombarded with too many choices.

The goal is to patiently work with them during their transitional period. For caregivers, it may be an undoubtedly overwhelming experience. But just imagine how the person with dementia must feel. Ideally we have to be in their world because they are no longer in ours. Their reality is real, and for us to say it is not will certainly cause a distress behavior at some point.

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Having A Conversation With Someone With Dementia

Communication is critical for everyone. There are two main forms of communication verbal and non-verbal . This feature focuses on the verbal form of communication and will provide you with some practical tips on how to help a person with dementia.

For information on non-verbal communication, see the feature in this section on Behaviour as a form of communication.

What we say should match how we say it the tone we use… and the faces that we pull while we are saying it.

For more on the importance of good communication, and from the point of view of people with dementia themselves, read the feature What other people can do to help me live well in the section Getting to know the person with dementia.

How Alzheimers Affects Communication

I knew that the first step to easier video chatting with my grandma was to understand what was causing her difficulties in the first place.

Alzheimers disease is much more than memory loss. Its believed to account for 60 to 80 percent of cases of dementia.

Its also a neurodegenerative disease with a wide array of symptoms, including visual-perceptual changes. On top of that, it often involves difficulties with problem-solving, speaking, writing, orientation, and otherwise familiar tasks.

All of these symptoms mean that for someone with Alzheimers, talking over the phone or video can be disorienting. They can no longer rely on nonverbal cues to help them communicate.

They may not even understand that they can interact with the screen or that its you on the screen in the first place.

Kari Burch, OTD, an occupational therapist at Memory Care Home Solutions, has been providing telehealth to people with Alzheimers since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Burch, there are specific symptoms that make telecommunication challenging. These include:

  • reduced language processing skills
  • slower processing times in general
  • reduced patience and increased irritability
  • disorientation and confusion
  • difficulty navigating technology

If its difficult to comprehend what youre saying, its difficult to interact and answer questions appropriately, Burch says.

Combined with the frustration and confusion of memory loss, the entire experience may be especially challenging.

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Listening To And Understanding Someone With A Dementia

Communication is a two-way process. If you are a carer of someone with dementia, you will probably have to learn to listen more carefully.

Active listening can help to improve communication between you and the person you’re caring for.

Active listening includes:

  • using eye contact to look at the person, and encouraging them to look at you when either of you are talking
  • trying not to interrupt them, even if you think you know what they’re saying
  • stopping what you’re doing so you can give the person your full attention while they speak
  • minimising distractions that may get in the way of communication, such as the television or the radio playing too loudly, but always check if it’s OK to do so
  • repeating what you heard back to the person and asking if it’s accurate, or asking them to repeat what they said

Find out more about communicating with people with dementia on the NHS website.

Dont Shy Away From Tears Or Laughter

How to Talk to Patients With Alzheimers or Dementia

People with dementia often lead very emotional lives. Anxiety and grief may be quite near to the surface. Dont shy away from tears. Stay with the person and offer them natural support.

You may not be able to fix the cause of the anxiety or grief, but seeing this through with them and not being afraid will help them enormously. Never underestimate this. Likewise, having a belly laugh together over something silly is a great way of getting to know each other.

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Focus On Communicating Your Love

However, not only do we need to keep in mind that the ability to use recall will fade away, we also need to keep in mind that people experiencing dementia sometimes recall dreamed events as being real, because they become unable to distinguish between dreams and reality. We should not assume they are purposefully misleading us. Rather than focusing on whats true or factual, its better to spend our time on the phone communicating our love and desire to spend time with them. We shouldnt expect verifiable facts from someone whos losing memory and rational thought. What someone with dementia says has happened is possibly true, but not necessarily true.

So dont correct, or question the validity of what your loved one says. Focus on what matters: that you love them and enjoying talking with them.

How To Communicate With Dementia Patients

Communicating with a loved one with dementia can be very challenging and often requires patience and good listening skills. Youll quickly learn that youll need to use new strategies to communicate with your loved one and ensure a better communication experience for both of you.

The truth is that your loved one with dementia probably has difficulty understanding you, and even some difficulty in understanding what they are trying to say and communicate when they speak.

Theres much potential for misunderstanding, confusion, and frustration, which makes communication even more difficult.

The key is to understand how your loved ones dementia is affecting their communication and utilizing communication strategies to help overcome these communication barriers.

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Preparing To Communicate With A Person With Dementia

  • Think about how you might feel if you struggled to communicate, and what would help.
  • Plan enough time to spend with the person. If you feel rushed or stressed, take some time to become calmer beforehand.
  • Think about previous conversations you have had with the person and what helped you to communicate well then.
  • If the person has begun to communicate using the first language they learned, and you do not speak it, consider arranging for family members or friends who also speak the language to be there with you. If the person prefers reading, try using translated written materials. A translation or interpretation app on a smart phone or tablet can translate between you if you dont speak the same language. If you need an interpreter, speak to your local authority, the persons care home, or an organisation such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
  • Get the persons full attention before you start.

How To Communicate With A Person With Dementia

What to know when talking to someone with Alzheimer

Dementia affects everyone differently so it’s important to communicate in a way that is right for the person. Listen carefully and think about what you’re going to say and how you’ll say it. You can also communicate meaningfully without using spoken words.

These tips apply to however the person usually communicates, for example speaking English or signing British Sign Language.

Every persons experience of dementia is unique, so not every tip may be helpful to the person you care for. Use the tips that you feel will improve communication between you.

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How To Talk To Someone With Dementia On The Phonea Quick Guide

  • Most importantly, communicate your love.You do this just with the tone of your voice and by continuing to talk.
  • Resist the impulse to correct them. If they tell you something that you know is untrue, it is not helpful to correct them. If you do, you may embarrass them and they wont feel safe talking to you. If it is something unpleasant, try changing the subject.
  • Tell them stories.Begin with happy stories from your week. Tell them other funny stories that might interest them. Tell stories from their past that you know they enjoy.
  • Make a list of topics beforehand. It can help to make a list of topics beforehand so that you dont run out of things to say.
  • Asking about the weather is a cue that they want to keep talking.If they ask about the weather or how your day was, this is a cue that they are enjoying talking, but dont know what to say. Keep the conversation going by providing the stories.
  • Bring a good mood. Try to communicate a good mood because people experiencing dementia absorb the moods of others around them. They have lost the ability to manage their own moods so a bad mood will follow them long after theyve forgotten why they feel bad. For this reason, try to end the conversation on a happy or funny topic.
  • Develop Helpful Daily Routines

    Having general daily routines and activities can provide a sense of consistency for an Alzheimers or dementia patient and help ease the demands of caregiving. Of course, as your loved ones ability to handle tasks deteriorates, youll need to update and revise these routines.

    Keep a sense of structure and familiarity. Try to keep consistent daily times for activities such as waking up, mealtimes, dressing, receiving visitors, and bedtime. Keeping these things at the same time and place can help orientate the person with dementia. Use cues to establish the different times of dayopening the curtains in the morning, for example, or playing soothing music at night to indicate bedtime.

    Involve your loved one in daily activities as much as theyre able. For example, they may not be able to tie their shoes, but may be able to put clothes in the hamper. Clipping plants in the yard may not be safe, but they may be able to weed, plant, or water.

    Vary activities to stimulate different sensessight, smell, hearing, and touchand movement. For example, you can try singing songs, telling stories, dancing, walking, or tactile activities such as painting, gardening, or playing with pets.

    Spend time outdoors. Going for a drive, visiting a park, or taking a short walk can be very therapeutic. Even just sitting outside can be relaxing.

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    Help Make Communication Easier

    The first step is to understand that the disease causes changes in communication skills. The second step is to try some tips that may make communication easier:

    • Make eye contact and call the person by name.
    • Be aware of your tone, how loud your voice is, how you look at the person, and your body language.
    • Encourage a two-way conversation for as long as possible.
    • Use other methods besides speaking, such as gentle touching.
    • Try distracting the person if communication creates problems.

    To encourage the person to communicate with you:

    • Show a warm, loving, matter-of-fact manner.
    • Hold the persons hand while you talk.
    • Be open to the persons concerns, even if he or she is hard to understand.
    • Let him or her make some decisions and stay involved.
    • Be patient with angry outbursts. Remember, its the illness talking.

    To speak effectively with a person who has Alzheimers:

    • Offer simple, step-by-step instructions.
    • Repeat instructions and allow more time for a response. Try not to interrupt.
    • Dont talk about the person as if he or she isnt there.
    • Dont talk to the person using baby talk or a baby voice.

    Faqs About Dementia And The Phone


    How do you talk to someone with dementia on the phone?

    The most important thing think to do when talking to someone with dementia on the phone is to communicate your love. You do this just with the tone of your voice and by continuing to talk. If they ask about the weather or how your day was, this is a cue that they are enjoying talking, but dont know what to say. Tell them happy stories about your life. Also tell them funny stories that you remember from times in the past spent with them. Resist the impulse to correct them. It can help to make a list of topics beforehand so that you dont run out of things to say. Last but not least, communicate a good mood because people experiencing dementia absorb the moods of others around them and are often unable to shake a bad mood on their own.

    What should/can I do when a person with dementia is calling constantly?

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    Common Changes In Communication

    Each person with dementia is unique and difficulties in communicating thoughts and feelings are very individual. There are many causes of dementia, each affecting the brain in different ways.

    Some changes you might notice include:

    • Difficulty in finding a word – a related word might be given instead of one they cannot remember
    • They may speak fluently, but not make sense
    • They may not be able to understand what you are saying or only be able to grasp part of it
    • Writing and reading skills may also deteriorate
    • They may lose the normal social conventions of conversations and interrupt or ignore a speaker, or fail to respond when spoken to
    • They may have difficulty expressing emotions appropriately

    The Alzheimers And Dementia Care Journey

    Caring for someone with Alzheimers disease or another type of dementia can be a long, stressful, and intensely emotional journey. But youre not alone. In the United States, there are more than 16 million people caring for someone with dementia, and many millions more around the world. As there is currently no cure for Alzheimers or dementia, it is often your caregiving and support that makes the biggest difference to your loved ones quality of life. That is a remarkable gift.

    However, caregiving can also become all-consuming. As your loved ones cognitive, physical, and functional abilities gradually diminish over time, its easy to become overwhelmed, disheartened, and neglect your own health and well-being. The burden of caregiving can put you at increased risk for significant health problems and many dementia caregivers experience depression, high levels of stress, or even burnout. And nearly all Alzheimers or dementia caregivers at some time experience sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and exhaustion. Seeking help and support along the way is not a luxury its a necessity.

    Just as each individual with Alzheimers disease or dementia progresses differently, so too can the caregiving experience vary widely from person to person. However, there are strategies that can aid you as a caregiver and help make your caregiving journey as rewarding as it is challenging.

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