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How to best communicate with someone with Dementia

Dementia can affect how individuals both express themselves and understand the information that is communicated to them. This may result in communication breakdowns when people with dementia speak and socialise with family members, friends, and staff members. Decreased communication, and increased communication breakdowns can lead someone to feel isolated, increase their anxiety, and decrease their quality of life.

Consequently, it is important for those who have regular contact with individuals with dementia, to understand the communication challenges they may face, and what we can do to improve communication. Our Speech Pathologist explains further.

How to best communicate with someone with Dementia

Communication difficulties with Dementia

People with dementia can encounter communication difficulties such as difficulty remembering a word, or using the wrong word. They may struggle to follow a conversation, repeat words, phrases or questions, have difficulty sequencing words into a sentence, fluctuating concentration, and difficulty in understanding complex sentences. They may also be talking less than usual, notice changes in their reading and writing skills and have an increased frustration and fatigue during communication.

Before you communicate with someone with dementia…

Ensure there is minimal background noise and decrease any distractions. A loud and busy environment can make it difficult for someone with dementia to concentrate.

Be mindful of the time in which you are communicating. For most people with dementia, the morning is the time where they feel most alert and less fatigued, therefore it will be easiest for them to communicate at this time.

Acknowledge that individuals with dementia can have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days with their alertness, memory and communication. Are they relaxed and happy and would respond to humour, or are they experiencing anger or anxiety and need to be reassured?

Always treat the person with respect. Ensure you are simplifying your use of language rather than speaking down to them.

Tips to help someone with dementia…

Express themselves:

  • Give them time to understand what you have said, and to respond to you.

  • If the person appears to be fatiguing, keep the conversation short and try again later in short bursts.

  • Give encouragement while the person is speaking. This could be a nod, making eye contact, and giving a short remark such as “I agree.”

  • If the person with dementia is having trouble thinking of the right word, ask them to explain it or describe it instead.

  • Speak about a topic that is familiar to them, such as memories from their childhood. Use photos or videos to aid their memory.

Follow conversations:

  • Communicate clearly, and use short, simple sentences.

  • Avoid asking question after question, as this can overwhelm someone with dementia.

  • Avoid asking many open-ended questions as these can be difficult for someone with dementia to answer. Opt for questions with a yes or no response, or a question with a choice of two items, e.g. “Would you like to watch TV or go for a walk? “ or “Would you like to watch TV?” instead of “What would you like to do?”

  • Use pictures and/or hand gestures with your speech to help them to understand what you’re saying and follow the conversation.

  • Slow down the pace of the conversation to make it easier for them to follow along.

  • If the person with dementia doesn’t understand what you are saying, try re-phrasing it, or simplifying it further.

  • Use names and relationships to help the person remember who you are speaking about, for example, “Lily, your sister”.

What about late-stage dementia?

If the person responds well to physical touch, holding hands can help to keep their attention, and show affection which can be re-assuring.

  • Consider playing music and singing along to it, particularly music that is familiar to the individual.

  • Think about the emotions behind any words or sounds made, rather than the content of the words or sounds.

  • Make eye contact with the individual, smile, and have open and relaxed body language to provide re-assurance and connection.

  • If you’re unsure of how to communicate with the individual, simply being present with the individual can improve their well-being.

Keep in mind

Each person with dementia will have differing strengths and weaknesses in their communication, therefore it is important to cater to these when adjusting the way you communicate with them. Use the tips that you believe will work best for you both.

The way someone with dementia communicates will vary on a day to day basis, and will change as the disease progresses. It is important to adjust the way you communicate according to these changes.

If someone you care for has dementia, and you are finding it difficult to communicate with them, get in touch with our Speech Pathology team today. We’re here to help you!

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