Tips for talking to someone with dementia and Alzheimer’s

After discovering a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, it’s normal to not know how to approach future communication. You might worry that what’s the point when they don’t even remember you or worry that talking to them about certain things might upset them and lead to frustration as they struggle to recall.

Ironically, communication is still extremely important and it also helps your loved ones adjust to the changes they are facing and show that you’re there for them. When they are beginning to lose focus or get overwhelmed, you can help them feel more at ease by opening the communication channels. Asking questions tends to spark meaningful conversation about memories. Dementia affects everyone differently and so the approach you use to communicate can be different too. Be patient with your loved one and take the time to find out what prompts and approaches work best for them.

Here are some tips for talking to someone with dementia and Alzheimer’s

  • Be patient. Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s requires patience, listening and understanding. They may encounter communication problems like losing their train of thought, forgetting names, relying on gestures not words and using familiar words repeatedly. You need to be able to practice patience and allow them to communicate in the way they feel most comfortable. One way to show that you’re genuinely interested is by maintaining eye contact.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the person’s ability to communicate. As mentioned above, dementia and Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently. Just because someone else you know preferred a certain style of communication doesn’t mean that it’s a general rule for anyone with the condition. Also, don’t make assumptions about the person’s general ability to communicate in general (“I’m sure you wouldn’t remember…”).
  • Give the person time to respond and actually listen to them as they communicate their feelings. The worst thing you can do is completely disregard the person and talk to the caregiver or companion. Talk directly to the person and make them feel heard. Also, don’t interrupt them while they’re talking, other than to potentially help them (Although avoid criticising and correcting).
  • It is also helpful to engage in a quiet space where there are minimal distractions. This helps them engage fully in the conversation. Make sure that you’re speaking slowly and clearly as well as give them plenty of time to respond so that they can think of what you’re saying and not feel pressured.
  • Don’t pull away. Dementia patients can easily feel lonely and forgotten and the worst thing you can do is not give them the support they need.
  • It is also okay if you don’t say anything or don’t know what to say. Being present is enough, and sometimes they just need your company and support.

Even though all dementia patients are different, you can put yourself in their shoes and think about if you were in a situation where you found it difficult to communicate, what might help you. Even though they might feel confused at times, you can sometimes guide them by leading the conversation to topics that make them feel more at ease. You want to get them to talk and express things while they still remember them — for their sake and also for those memories to live on through you even when they forget. If you’re still unsure how to approach communicating with your loved one, here are 5 conversation starter questions that can serve as prompts and make it easier.

  • Ask about a lighthearted family memory — “Remember when Sam dropped the cake at her 40th birthday party?”
  • Ask about a memory that’s close to their heart — “Do you remember how you asked mom out?”
  • Ask about their hobbies — “I see you’ve been bird watching lately, have you come across any interesting species?”
  • Ask about their childhood — “What sports did you play in school?”
  • Ask about a trip — “Remember when we took that road trip across the country?”

Communication is important because it reminds your loved one that you’re there for them, support them and understand them. It’s a reminder to them that they still have valuable contributions to make and that they’re still loved. By taking the time to communicate, you’re enriching their life in ways that go beyond the exchange and you’re making new memories with them that you can cherish forever.

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Livewell Estates are a specialist family of dementia and Alzheimer’s care facilities based in South Africa, specialising in personalised and tailored care.