How To Talk To Someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia

Declining cognition is a challenge for older adults and anyone in their sphere of influence. Try as they might, people with cognitive conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease will gradually lose some thinking abilities, according to Healthline. They may be challenged by difficulties in learning, paying attention, reasoning and remembering.

These challenges can make communicating with these older people difficult. But there are things family and caregivers can do – and not do – to make conversation easier and less frustrating for everyone.

>> Read “Understanding the Different Types of Dementia

Find out more about memory challenges in dementia patients, how to talk to someone with cognitive impairment, what you should say to someone with dementia and what you should not say.

The Reality of Memory in Dementia Patients

People have four types of memory, according to the Alzheimer’s Society: episodic memory, prospective memory, semantic memory and working memory.

  • Episodic memory: This type of memory recalls past events, recent or distant. These memories can include emotions or feelings connected to those memories.
  • Prospective memory: This is used to remember appointments, dates or events scheduled sometime in the future. 
  • Semantic memory: This includes remembering facts or words. It is also used to recognize faces or objects.
  • Working memory: This stores information for short periods of time. These memories are either lost shortly thereafter or moved over into longer-term memory.

All forms of memory can be affected by dementia, but many complaints center on difficulties with episodic memories. This loss of memory can make conversing difficult. Talking to someone with cognitive impairment is a challenge, but there are strategies that can help.

>> Read “50 Essential Dementia Resources

How to Communicate With Dementia Patients

It can be hard to know what to say to someone with dementia. Their difficulty concentrating and possibly hearing may be a barrier to complete understanding.

Here are some ideas for how to communicate to someone with dementia, from the Alzheimer’s Society.

  • Acknowledge what they’ve said. Even if they don’t answer or if they speak out of context, affirm that you’ve heard them.
  • Ask them to tell their favorite stories. Memories may be difficult for people with dementia, but sometimes photos may help recall events that will spur conversation.
  • Consider the time of day. Pay attention to their cognition at different times, taking advantage of their peaks to engage them.
  • Give them simple choices. Yes-no options and other such techniques keep the conversation moving forward without complications.
  • Let them respond at their own pace. It may take them time to process information and formulate a response. Be patient as they work out what to say.
  • Listen carefully. Rephrase questions if they don’t understand. 
  • Make sure they’re comfortable. Seek out a quiet, calm environment with good lighting. Avoid distractions such as the TV or radio.
  • Plan to spend time with them. Communication may be slow and difficult. Take time to be calm before engaging in conversation.
  • Smile and make eye contact. A genuine smile can reassure someone with memory challenges. Smiles and eye contact convey that you are glad to speak to them and will be patient and encouraging.
  • Speak clearly and slowly. Use short sentences and give them time to respond.
  • Think of previous conversations. What made it easier to communicate with them? Are there things you can replicate?
  • Use their names. This indicates genuine respect and dignity. Terms such as “sweetie” or “honey” can be affectionate but can be interpreted as demeaning.
  • Watch body language. Facial expressions, gestures and movements may be the way they communicate best, so take that into consideration. Consider your body language also, using gentle touch as appropriate to reassure them.

>> Read “5 Ways Aging Parents Need Help from Their Adult Children

What Not To Say to Someone With Dementia

Just as there are things you should do to communicate with dementia patients, there are steps you shouldn’t take. Here are a few don’ts, from the Alzheimer’s Society.

  • Don’t argue. Since they aren’t processing information well because of their dementia, you likely can’t reason with some people with cognitive challenges. Also, you can make them angry, and some dementia patients can be prone to violence.
  • Don’t ask if they remember something. Memory is very difficult to begin with, so it could frustrate or embarrass them. Prompt them instead of asking them to remember.
  • Don’t bring up difficult subjects. The death of a spouse or a friend can still be an emotional subject. Also, avoid such divisive subjects as politics.
  • Don’t complete their sentences. Let them finish their thought and communicate it without losing your own patience.
  • Don’t ignore the person. Give them a chance to answer before turning to family or friends for answers. Don’t talk about the person as if they weren’t there.
  • Don’t interrogate. Ask questions, share memories, but don’t turn the conversation into question after question. This may feel overwhelming or make it difficult to communicate.
  • Don’t patronize them. People with cognitive challenges need to be treated with respect and patience but not treated as a child.
  • Don’t raise your voice or speak sharply. Hearing issues may be at play here too, but yelling won’t help the conversation.
  • Don’t speak in complicated sentences. Make conversations simple.
  • Don’t tell them they’re wrong. Correcting someone about their memories or other facts can be embarrassing and can shut off communication.
  • Don’t use metaphors or slang. Complicated mental images or unfamiliar words may confuse them.

> Read “5 Things Aging Parents Don’t Want from Their Caregiving Adult Children

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Senior Lifestyle communities offer Memory Care services for those who need assistance as they work through cognitive challenges such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. For these special people, a program of activities helps fill their daily life with joy and serenity. 

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