Communicating with Seniors who Have Dementia

By Michelle Cemental

Effective communication is essential in maintaining meaningful relationships with seniors living with Alzheimer's or related dementias. As your loved one's cognitive abilities decline, connecting with them can become increasingly challenging. However, by employing the right strategies and approaches, you can create an atmosphere of understanding, support, and connection.

How Dementia Impacts Communication

To set the foundation for our communication tips, it's helpful to understand how dementia affects communication. Losing the ability to communicate is not part of aging normally. It is one of the symptoms of dementia. As the different forms of dementia progress, they can damage the parts of the brain that control language.

As you try to talk with a senior who has dementia, you might notice the following patterns:

  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Losing train of thought
  • Speaking less frequently
  • Repeating words and stories
  • Describing an object instead of using its name
  • Mixing up phrases and ideas
  • Creating new words
  • Cursing or offensive language
  • Difficulty speaking in organized sentences
  • Hard time understanding simple statements

As dementia progresses and memory loss becomes more prominent, verbal communication will become more affected. It may become difficult and frustrating for you and your aging loved one to understand each other. And your loved one's ability to communicate may change daily based on their wellbeing.

For example, it can be harder for people with Alzheimer's to communicate if they are tired or feel uncomfortable. New surroundings can make a senior feel scared and unwilling to talk. A senior with frontotemporal dementia may start having problems with language much sooner than adults with other types of dementia.

But having good communication with your loved one is not impossible!

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Tips for Improved Dementia Communication

Here are some tips to help you hone effective communication skills. As you read through each tip, consider how you might be able to apply it with your loved one. And remember that each individual with dementia is unique and will require a tailored type of communication.

1. Approach with Empathy and Understanding

When communicating with seniors living with dementia, it is crucial to approach them with empathy and understanding. Recognize that their cognitive impairments may cause frustration and confusion, making it harder for them to express themselves. Remember that they are still a person with needs and desires, and their behaviors have meaning.

By demonstrating patience, empathy, and a willingness to listen, you can establish a foundation of trust and comfort. This creates a safe space for open communication.

2. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal cues play a vital role in connecting with seniors who have dementia. Your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can convey emotions and intentions more effectively than words alone. Maintain eye contact, use a gentle and reassuring tone, and adopt a relaxed posture to demonstrate your attentiveness and respect. Non-verbal cues can help compensate for any verbal limitations and ensure a more meaningful exchange of emotions.

Likewise, pay attention to the body language of your loved one with dementia. Their body language can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Watch for your loved one's reactions when communicating with them to help improve your communication skills.

3. Simplify and Adapt Language

As dementia progresses, individuals may experience difficulties in understanding complex sentences and abstract concepts. Adjusting your language and communication style can greatly aid comprehension. Use simple, concise sentences and speak slowly, allowing ample time for processing. Break down instructions or questions into smaller, manageable steps.

Additionally, try not to use big words if there is a simpler alternative available. And avoid idioms or other phrases that could be confusing. Think about when you speak to young children. While you don't want to talk down to your loved one, you should use language appropriate to their level of understanding.

4. Practice Active Listening

Active listening is a powerful tool in fostering effective communication. Demonstrate your attentiveness by giving your undivided focus and maintaining eye contact. Reflect on what the person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally.

It can be tempting to try and finish your loved one's sentence or give them a word. However, encourage them to express themselves and avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences. By actively listening, you create an environment that encourages self-expression and mutual understanding.

5. Provide Validation and Affirmation

Seniors living with dementia may frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. By validating their emotions and affirming their experiences, you can provide reassurance and support. Acknowledge their feelings and validate their concerns, even if their reality differs from yours.

Respond using phrases like "That must be difficult for you" or "I understand how you might feel that way." Affirmation helps them feel heard and acknowledged, enhancing their overall well-being. Plus, this is another great way to approach the conversation with empathy.

6. Use Visual and Sensory Cues

Visual and sensory cues can significantly aid communication with seniors who have dementia. Use photographs, memory aids, or familiar objects to trigger memories and facilitate conversations. Incorporate sensory stimulation, such as gentle touch, soothing music, or pleasant scents, to evoke positive emotions and engagement.

For example, if you are talking about a specific item in the room, hold up the object or point to it. If you want your loved one to do a specific activity, act out some of the motions. These cues provide a sensory bridge that can enhance recall, evoke shared memories, and deepen the connection between you and your loved one.

7. Be Patient and Flexible

Communicating with seniors living with dementia often requires an abundance of patience and flexibility. Recognize that their cognitive abilities fluctuate, and their communication skills may vary from day to day. Be prepared for repetitive questions or stories and respond with kindness and understanding.

Try not to get frustrated if your loved one regresses in their communication or gets frustrated with you. Maintain a calm and relaxed demeanor, as stress or frustration can be sensed and may hinder effective communication. Focus on connecting instead of correcting.

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8. Eliminate Distractions

Distractions in the environment can make it difficult for your loved one to focus on the conversation. Dementia can actually make it easier for someone to become distracted. So, reduce as many distractions as possible when trying to communicate. For example, turn off the TV or background music.

Talk to your loved one face to face instead of commenting from the other room or with your back turned. Making eye contact can signal to your loved one that you are trying to engage with them.

Improving communication with seniors living with dementia requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses empathy, active listening, and adaptation. By cultivating an environment of understanding and employing these strategies, caregivers and loved ones can establish meaningful connections with their seniors.

Remember that every individual living with dementia is unique. So, it may take time to discover the most effective techniques for your loved one. With patience and persistence, you can develop the best communication method for your loved one, enriching their lives and your own.

To learn how our professional caregivers can help aging loved ones with dementia, reach out to your local Caring team.

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Tags: Alzheimer's & Dementia