Dementia Strategies: Tips for Communication

| Dementia

Young woman talking to senior man

Do you have difficulty communicating with a loved one who is living with dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia irreversibly damage brain cells. Over time, this causes a range of devastating symptoms, including memory loss and difficulty understanding and using language (a condition known as aphasia).

The resulting communication challenges can cause a great deal of distress and frustration, both for the person with dementia and for those who care about them. Learning different ways to “talk” with your loved one – including non-verbal methods – can help reduce misunderstandings and maintain a positive relationship.

How dementia affects communication

Dementia affects each person differently. Your loved one’s language problems might include:

  • Trouble finding words
  • Using the wrong words
  • Repeating words, phrases or stories
  • Difficulty organizing words into sentences
  • Trouble understanding others
  • Inventing words to replace others
  • Describing things rather than using their names
  • Losing their train of thought easily
  • Swearing or using other offensive words
  • Reverting to their first language
  • Speaking less often than they used do
  • Using physical gestures instead of talking

Talking points

To make communication easier, it can help to:

  • Speak slowly and clearly, without being patronizing.
  • Speak in a positive, calm and respectful voice.
  • Use short and simple sentences.
  • Talk in a quiet, distraction-free place.
  • Give your loved one your undivided attention.
  • Ask yes/no questions rather than open-ended ones.
  • Allow plenty of time for them to speak.
  • Repeat back what you heard.
  • Focus on one question or topic at a time.
  • Break down instructions into small steps.
  • Repeat the names of people and things, rather than switching to “him” or “it.”
  • Avoid criticizing or correcting.

Non-verbal ways to communicate

Not being able to get through to each other with words can be stressful for both you and your loved one. Try these ideas for connection:

  • Approach your loved one from the front, without crowding their personal space.
  • Make and maintain eye contact.
  • Make use of facial expressions and body language, and watch theirs carefully for clues.
  • Be mindful of your actions. If you turn your body away, cross your arms or murmur to yourself, for example, your loved one may think you’re saying “no.”
  • Demonstrate actions and tasks, and show relevant items or point at the things you’re talking about.
  • If your loved one is open to receiving affection, hold or pat their hand or arm reassuringly to offer encouragement and express that you care.
  • Write messages on paper.
  • You may need to guess or interpret based on what you hear and see.

Remember, it’s common for people with dementia to have good days and bad days. Your loved one might have greater difficulty with memory or language after a poor night’s sleep, for example. Try to be patient and approach each day with a positive attitude.

Additional resource

Alzheimer Society of Canada: Communication brochure

Bayshore Home Health offers a wide range of home care services, including dementia and Alzheimer’s care, to help Canadians live independently for as long as possible. Contact us at 1-877-289-3997 for details.