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Managing Dementia 101: How to Communicate

By Hollie Glover, LPC

While caring for someone with dementia, you’ll notice many changes in that person’s mental, physical and emotional health, as well as the way they communicate and connect with others. Those affected by dementia have trouble thinking, recalling or reasoning clearly, which can make communication difficult and frustrating. However, with patience, understanding and active listening, you can improve your management of dementia and related communication challenges while enhancing the overall quality of your relationship with your patient, client or loved one.

Here are some general communication guidelines that will help:

  • Give simple, one-sentence explanations or instructions, avoiding adjectives or detailed descriptions. For example, “Sit here” (while patting the chair) versus “Go sit down on the brown leather chair.” 
  • Repeat yourself using the same exact words; otherwise they hear something different. If they still don’t understand you, wait a few moments, then try rephrasing.
  • Allow plenty of time for comprehension and/or a response. Individuals with dementia need more time to process information and articulate their thoughts.
  • Go to their world. Shape the way you communicate in a way that is most relatable to them and their life experiences.
  • Use distractions to diffuse conflict. A sweet snack or their favorite music can help you direct the individual’s attention away from a source of agitation or tension.
  • Actively listen. Maintaining eye contact and focusing on them as they speak shows them you care about what they are saying and are engaged in the conversation.
  • Understand that the words they choose might not be what the message is about. Try to get to the root of what they’re saying without getting distracted by how they are saying it.
  • Use gestures or demonstrate the task/instructions so they can mirror your actions.
  • Watch your tone of voice and body language. People with dementia can pick up on your nonverbal cues, such as posture, facial expressions and mood.

Alternatively, here are some habits to avoid:

  • Don’t argue. Disagreeing can cause unnecessary anger or agitation. Instead, your favorite word should be “OK.” It does not mean you agree, it means, “I hear you.” Keeping the peace is more important than being right.
  • Don’t try to reason or be rational. Keep in mind that dementia affects their ability to reason logically.
  • Don’t question their memory or use the word “remember.” It reminds them that they forgot.
  • Don’t judge or criticize. Try to understand where they are coming from.
  • Don’t take their words and actions personally. Your patient, client or loved one may be lashing out at you because they are frustrated with themselves.

Want more communication tips and tricks? Learn more about our Dementia and Caregiver Education programs and check out our Education Calendar to access our educational videos, schedule of caregiver courses and other resources.