Communication Strategies for Those Living with Dementia

April 23, 2019

As a progressive disease, dementia slowly affects an individual’s memory. This typically begins with minor forgetfulness of basic facts like the date, day, or current location, but usually develops into significant memory loss.

Not only that, dementia has a drastic effect on the person’s communication skills. They become harder to understand while reasoning with them becomes even more challenging, leading to an all-round painful experience for their loved ones. Many people that those with dementia simply stop being themselves after a point.

Yet there is an ability to communicate with those living with dementia. Given the severity of the disease, special strategies must be used when communicating with them to help encourage improved communication.

Before You Talk – How to Encourage Communication

Starting conversations with someone that has dementia is often difficult as their ability process information and provide a suitable response deteriorates. Therefore, you may notice they are communicating less, in which case you’ll want to encourage communication.

This should happen prior to any conversation. For example, you should make sure the room is quiet, there are few distractions (e.g. television, radio etc.), and that you’re in a suitable position to talk to them.

You want to sit close enough so that they can hear but avoid making them uncomfortable – look at their body language to see whether you’re sitting too close. Also, make sure that you’re clearly visible and avoid standing above them, as this may make them feel uncomfortable, so communicating at the same level (e.g. both sitting down) is important.

Other strategies to help encourage communication showing an open and relaxed body language, thinking ahead of what to say to them, and ensuring you have their full attention before starting any conversation.

When Talking – What to Say and How to Speak

There are various strategies that may help better communicate with someone living with dementia. Some may work depending on the situation while others are less effective, so it’s important to remain patient and try different methods as needed.

How you talk to the person is important. Without the right strategy you may struggle to communicate with them, so be sure to take the following steps with how you speak to them:

  • Always talk slowly, calmly, and clearly
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Try to keep a casual conversational tone rather than constantly questioning them
  • Never raise your voice or show signs of irritation or frustration when speaking to them
  • Always acknowledge their responses even if you don’t fully understand it – make it clear that you’ve heard what they say and encourage them to talk more on the subject
  • Follow one line of thought at a time, as expanding into various options may cause them to feel confused and frustrated – keep things simple
  • Use short sentences and try not to ask anything too complex or complicated for them to understand – people with dementia often get withdrawn when they don’t know the answer to questions
  • When asking questions, try to ensure you phrase them in a manner that is easy to respond for them, such as yes or no questions
  • Try to avoid repeating questions they don’t understand – rephrase in a simpler way if they struggle to answer

Actively Listening

One of the most important aspects of communicating with those living with dementia is active listening. Getting them to talk can be challenging, so when they do you can take steps to ensure they know you’re listening. Smile and nod when they talk to you, maintain eye contact, never interrupt (even if you don’t know what they mean), and always give them your full attention.

Now, you may struggle to understand some things, which is to be expected, so be sure to suitably respond after listening. For example, if you don’t understand what they have said, politely ask them to repeat themselves, and be sure to not overly correct.

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