How to talk to someone with dementia

talking to someone with dementia

As dementia progresses, communicating effectively with a person who has the condition may become challenging.

Dementia is a neurological condition that, over time, can affect both a person’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally.

Dementia affects each person differently, and symptoms will change over time as the condition progresses. Some common problems that can cause communicating effectively with a person with dementia to become difficult include:

  • They frequently lose their train of thought.
  • They have trouble remembering words.
  • They begin repeating stories or phrases a lot.
  • They often misunderstand what people are saying.
  • Their speech is confused and mixed up.

As the condition advances you may encounter more frequent problems communicating with the person who has dementia. In later stages, they may even become nonverbal.

Some people may find themselves getting increasingly upset or frustrated when trying to communicate with a loved one who has dementia.

Communicating with a person who has dementia is often quite different to communicating with someone who does not. It requires more patience, excellent listening skills, a good dose of empathy, and a sound understanding of the condition to communicate effectively with someone who has dementia.

In this article, we will explore some of the top tips, advice, and strategies for effective communication with a person who has dementia.

Tips for communicating with a person who has dementia

Communicating with someone who has dementia isn’t always straightforward.

You may not experience any problems during the early stages of dementia, but you are likely to notice a gradual decline in their ability to communicate effectively as the condition progresses.

When speaking to someone who has dementia, there are a few things you can do to help the conversation run smoother. The following 12 tips can help you both to understand each other better.

  • Reduce background noise
  • Keep it simple
  • Think about how they are feeling
  • Be aware of their emotional response
  • Use their name
  • Use visual aids if they may help
  • Don’t exclude them from conversations
  • Speak directly to them
  • Give them time to respond
  • Only ask one question at a time
  • Ask yes or no questions
  • Avoid correcting them often

We will look at some of these tips in more detail later in this article.

In the later stages of dementia, if the person is struggling with language and comprehension, you can try using non-verbal communication to reassure and comfort them. This could be as simple as using physical contact, like an arm around their shoulder, or facial expressions and body language to match what you’re saying to them.

Not all tips will be relevant at all times, for example, in the early stages of dementia, communication is likely to be a lot easier and you may not need to rely on using yes or no questions.

How to speak to someone with dementia

With a good understanding of dementia and a little care and thought, there are plenty of techniques you can use to help you to speak to a person with dementia in ways that make it easier for them to understand and respond.

Speak directly to them

Always give a person with dementia the opportunity to speak for themselves rather than directing questions at their family, friends, or carer.

Speak to them respectfully

People with middle or late-stage dementia can find communicating very difficult. They may frequently lose their train of thought, repeat things, or say things that appear to make no sense or be irrelevant. Always remember that although conversation may feel challenging, you should always speak to them with respect and avoid infantilising them or falling into the trap of just speaking very loudly. Always speak with a normal, respectful, and patient tone of voice.

Keep it simple

Speak clearly, in short sentences, and don’t bombard a person with dementia with a lot of information or questions all at once, making it easier for them to follow what you are saying and form a response. If the dementia is quite progressed, you may need to start asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no rather than open-ended questions.

Don’t keep correcting them

Avoid needlessly correcting or contradicting someone with dementia when they get something wrong as this may be confusing and discouraging for them.

How to listen to someone with dementia

Listening carefully to a person with dementia is just as important as speaking clearly. Here are three ways to start listening better to people with dementia.

Listen with your eyes as well as your ears

People with dementia can easily become confused, irritated, or scared. Being sensitive to their emotions and how they are feeling at any given time can help communications to run smoother. This includes paying close attention to their tone of voice and facial expressions as well as listening to their words to judge their emotional response to what you are saying.

Give them plenty of time to respond

It can take a person with dementia longer to process what you are saying and find the right words to respond. Be patient and try not to hurry or interrupt them.

Listen and look for clues

Sometimes, if the person with dementia is struggling to find the right words you may be able to find some clues about what they’re trying to communicate by listening carefully to what they’re saying or looking at their facial expressions or body language. Try asking them to repeat what they said or explain again in a different way. If you’re not sure that you understand, always repeat back to them to check your understanding.

Understanding dementia is key to communicating effectively with someone who has the condition. Find out more in our article How can I understand dementia better or by taking the short Dementia Awareness course that we run here at CBAT.

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