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Tips on How to Better Communicate with Someone Who Has Dementia
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Tips on How to Better Communicate with Someone Who Has Dementia

If you have a loved one with dementia, you may have discovered you sometimes can’t make yourself understood. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia or cognitive impairment are multifaceted conditions, and people who have these health conditions may not always be able to make sense of what you are saying or find the right words to reply.

Communicating effectively with people who have dementia can be challenging even for experienced healthcare providers. However, if you understand the root of the difficulties you encounter and follow these practical tips for effective discourse, your ability to converse is sure to improve. Town Square Princeton is committed to educating caregivers of people with dementia on the best communication and other care strategies, in addition to offering the Greater Princeton, Middlesex County, and Mercer County area’s best adult day enrichment services. Read on to learn more about conversational tips for engaging with someone with a cognitive disorder, or contact us today to find out more about what we have to offer or to schedule a tour.

Understanding the Challenges of Communication with Dementia

Before learning how to talk to a parent with dementia, it’s helpful to know why communication can be difficult for many people with dementia. Most forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease-related dementia, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia, result in physical changes to the brain that affect multiple functions:

  • Short-term memory
  • Reasoning and comprehension
  • Automatic memory (like how to drive or ride a bike)
  • Emotional memory (gut reactions)
  • Processing new information
  • Staying with a train of thought
  • Word usage and accuracy (finding the right word)
  • Talking or writing in languages other than one’s first language (non-native speakers of English, for example, can find that communication in English is harder)
  • Understanding of present-time reality and place, or orientation in time

Imagine if you lost the ability to reliably control these things. These mental functions are the building blocks of communication, so it’s clear that lessened ability in these areas can impair speech and comprehension.

Therefore, it’s essential when talking to someone with dementia that you remember these challenges and practice patience in communication. A person with dementia may not be able to consciously change their behavior, so you’re the one who has to adapt.

Navigating Emotional Responses and Difficult Behaviors

It’s quite common to run into emotional responses and difficult behaviors when communicating with a parent, spouse, or other loved one with dementia. This can show up in different ways, like anxiety or anger. It’s easy at first to also fall into some conversation traps without knowing better. Use the advice below to keep things on an even keel.

Ask the right questions in order to get a helpful answer.

When communicating with a person experiencing the earlier stages of dementia, simplifying directions and asking direct questions with limited answers is best. For example, rather than “What would you like to drink?” it may be better to say “Would you like iced tea or seltzer?” During later stages of dementia, people who are affected may not even be able to respond to questions like these, so further simplification into yes and no could be helpful: “Do you want a glass of iced tea?” In all cases, don’t ask a question that offers a choice if your loved one is no longer up to making that choice.

Don’t pose something as a question if you don’t want the answer to be optional.

Rather than ask, “Would you like to go see the doctor now?” say “It’s time for your appointment with the doctor.” This avoids arguments that start with “But I said I don’t want to!”

Save open-ended questions for when you want to prompt a longer conversation.

“Tell me about growing up on a farm,” for example, lets your parent choose whichever memories they wish to share. This usually works best for topics involving long-term memory, which is retained much more clearly for people with dementia. It’s also good for questions that prompt your parent to offer an opinion, like “What do you think about this song?”

Avoid questions that make people feel like they’re on a quiz show.

“What’s your grandson’s name?” “What’s your address?” These questions are best left to healthcare providers when they need to assess your parent’s level of memory loss or orientation. Otherwise, you run the risk of causing distress.

Help your parent feel like mistakes happen to everyone.

If your parent can’t remember something or calls someone by the wrong name, don’t correct them outright or make them feel embarrassed about it. Tell them “I’ve confused that name before too,” so they feel more normal about it. Instead of correcting your parent with, “No, his name is So-and-So,” try something like, “I think his name is So-and-So. Does that sound right?”

Redirect the conversation if things get heated.

Sometimes, even when you think you’re headed in the right direction, a conversation can turn argumentative, or your loved one might become surprisingly upset. In that case, table the talk for the moment and move on to something else.

Caring for a parent with dementia can be overwhelming and exhausting. It’s helpful to have daytime care resources available to you when you need a break to recharge or tend to other matters. Town Square Princeton offers adult day care services for people with dementia in an innovative setting that uses a leading memory care practice called reminiscence therapy to increase social engagement and improve general well-being.

Contact us online today with any questions or to schedule a tour. In other regions of the vibrant state of New Jersey, we offer the same amazing services at our sister locations in Marlton and at the Jersey Shore in Brick.