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Tips for Talking to a Person with Dementia

Ideally, all our conversations should be long on listening and gracious when we speak. But if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s, it becomes clear you have to be extra careful about what you say and how you say it.

Here are a few conversation tips our experienced memory care caregivers have to offer that may help you and your family if you have a relative who has been diagnosed with a form of dementia.

Tone Matters

Let’s start with the tone of voice. It’s not just your words that matter. Your tone of voice sets the tone for the communication. Speak softly, clearly, and calmly. Your tone of voice can go a long way toward keeping your loved one calm, and your words of reassurance will help to reinforce that they are OK.

Keep it Simple

Especially as people with dementia already have a hard time with short-term memory, you want to provide simple, easy-to-follow instructions. And you want to avoid asking yes or no questions. Instead of “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” state, “Let’s go to the bathroom.” Or “It’s time for lunch.” Keep your responses brief.

No Arguing

Do not argue with someone with dementia or try to correct them. Try to agree with them and acknowledge what they are saying as much as possible. Also, try not to say “no.” This refusal may just spark an argument that is frustrating for you both, and it can increase anxiety. Perhaps you can deflect the matter to another time. Maybe tomorrow; how about in a little while? This “temporary postponement language” might provide a satisfactory response and enough of a distraction to move on from that subject. You may also want to redirect the conversation to something else and see if that works.

Phrasing Matters

Don’t ask them if they remember. Especially with short-term memory loss, this will only frustrate them when they can’t answer something, even a simple question like “What did you eat for lunch?” Draw on their long-term memory bank. One tip to draw your loved one out is to get them to share about special times you know they will enjoy discussing. Instead of asking, “Do you remember when?” try, “I was thinking about when we used to spend summers at the beach.”  Or “I was thinking about the beautiful sweaters you used to crochet.”

Reduce Your Expectations

Reduce your expectations for communication and be prepared to answer the same questions repeatedly. You will need to train yourself not to ask the typical peppering of short-term questions that are common in your other conversations. It can be hard, but use your interactions with your loved one as an opportunity to build patience.

Keep it Familiar, Reinforce their Likes

Catering to what you know they like or used to find enjoyable will go a long way in helping them see that you know them. Talk about what they like to talk about. What do they find humorous? Is there an old song they used to like to sing? Is your loved one a former farmer or gardener? Keeping the topics familiar will have the most positive responses.

Use Photos and Visual Gestures

Sharing photos with your loved one can be a beautiful reminder of good times. If they have favorite books or other items you can hand them, this may bring comfort just holding them. Also, using physical gestures like nodding and smiling can help.

Respect their Reality

It may seem disingenuous to play along if they want to talk about going to work or speak of a loved one who has long since passed away as if they are alive now, but you will have a calmer and smoother conversation if you can acknowledge their reality. While you can’t have the same type of communication you used to have, you can still have a meaningful connection with your loved one. Especially if you pull from the long-term memory drawer, you will find they still have a lot they want to share.