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How to Communicate Effectively with Someone who has Dementia 

How to Communicate Effectively with Someone who has Dementia 

01 February 2021

Dementia is a progressive neurological condition that can affect a person’s cognition, memory and language. When the brain is injured, through a stroke or disease, it’s called dementia. The most common form is Alzheimer’s. As it affects language, dementia can cause problems with communication. 

How does dementia affect communication? 

Dementia can affect communication in several ways – compromising memory, thinking, concentration and perception. This creates barriers in the ways a person with dementia can express themselves and understand others. When carers don’t compensate for this, it can lead to frustration and anxiety. 

Communication is made up of verbal and non-verbal expression. When we talk, we combine words with gesture, tone and facial expression. Dementia impairs the brain, making it difficult for a person to decode what they hear, as well as what they see. Sometimes the signal is crossed, or misinterpreted as it takes the brain longer to process the information.  

How dementia affects communication: 

  1. Forgetting names of objects or people 

  1. Struggling to find the right vocabulary 

  1. Omitting or substituting words 

  1. Misinterpreting body language or tone of voice 

This decline in communication can affect a person’s quality of life. Some people with dementia may be unable to initiate conversation - so the responsibility to encourage this, is with carers. Fortunately, knowing how to communicate effectively with a person with dementia, can vastly improve their quality of life. 

How to communicate with someone with dementia.  

It is important to be empathetic, patient and respectful when talking to someone who has dementia. Holding a conversation can be difficult, as dementia affects a person’s ability to recall and process what is being said. These tips will help you communicate in a more meaningful way:  

• Slow down 

Being patient will help you communicate better with anyone who has dementia. Those with cognitive impairments need time to process their thoughts. By slowing down, you’ll create an environment where you both feel less stressed, more relaxed and able to express yourselves.  

• Identify 

Introduce yourself, keep your tone of voice calm and light. Be mindful of your physical presence. Standing over someone can feel intimidating, so drop down to their level. If it’s appropriate, offer a gesture of comfort and reassurance - like holding a hand - while you speak.  

• Empathise 

Try to understand the frustrations of communicating, which can be symptomatic of dementia. Adjust the way you speak to foster better relationships. Smile, nod, offer encouragement and remain calm and neutral when the conversation falters. Simplify your space by removing distractions from the room - this will make it easier for your companion to focus and express themselves.  

• Simplify 

For a person with dementia, our usual communication style may be tricky to follow. Bouncy conversation, littered with idioms and metaphor can cause confusion. Keep the warmth, but simplify your words and ask simple questions. Stop frequently to allow them time to process and think. This will help limit feelings of frustration and reduce any associated poor behaviours.  

• Listen closely 

One way we can all learn how to communicate better is to actively listen. People with dementia sometimes struggle to express themselves. On occasion, it may not make sense. Pause for a moment, reflect on the meaning behind the words and paraphrase it back without judgement. Show you’re following what is being said by maintaining eye contact and nod encouragingly.  

• Reframe 

There are days your loved one will exhibit behaviours which are uncharacteristically aggressive. One way to keep calm is to ‘reframe’ negative situations. Acknowledge your own feelings first and take a moment to let them pass. Then consider what message is being that behaviour. Are they tired? Have you asked too many questions? Take the emotion out of the situation by viewing conversation objectively, rather than critically.  

• Use prompts 

If you’re looking for ways to start a conversation with someone with dementia, then consider objects and photos from happy events in their life. Sensory stimulation through touching objects, seeing photos or hearing familiar songs can be a great way to encourage talk.  

• Avoid arguments 

Memory deterioration and cognitive lapses mean communication can be difficult for people with dementia. Testing memory, asking complex questions, or offering too much choice can trigger feelings of frustration. The consequence is your loved one may say something nonsensical or hurtful if they feel overwhelmed. Try to let negative comments pass without acknowledgment and take a moment for the heat of emotions to fade.  

Many dementia charities in the UK offer advice and support. Knowledge can help you understand how the disease affects an individual, helping you to communicate in a better way. Find out more: 

• The Dementia UK helpline – 0800 888 6678 

• The National Dementia helpline – 0300 222 11 22 

• Alzheimer’s Society UK 

• The Carers Trust for support for carers 

Curam carers understand the joy and challenge of communicating well with people who have dementia. Specialist dementia carers can improve the quality of life for you and your loved one, by providing hourly, respite or even live-in care. Read more about hiring a dementia carer or download the Curam App today. 

Author Sara