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10 Expert Communication Strategies to Manage Dementia Communication

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyJune 15, 2020

It can be painful to witness the deterioration of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia. Fortunately, there are many Alzheimer’s communication strategies that can help you maintain, and even build upon, your bond with a loved one.

“Alzheimer’s and other dementias are difficult disease journeys, but there is so much opportunity for connection and success together,” says Brenda Gurung, a certified dementia practitioner for the Alzheimer’s Association and a senior national account manager at A Place for Mom. “When you understand even a bit of what’s happening in the brain — and when you embrace some simple techniques — you’ll have more delightful visits with your loved one, deeper connections, and a smoother journey.” 

How does dementia affect communication?

The effects of dementia on the brain can worsen a person’s:

  • Communication and cognition
  • Memory and focus
  • Language skills
  • Visual perception
  • Problem-solving skills

Signs of dementia begin when healthy neurons or nerve cells in the brain stop working with other brain cells and die, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. While losing neurons is more common with age, people with dementia experience a severe loss of neurons, which can contribute to personality changes, a decrease in communication skills, and losing emotional control.

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Top communication tips for seniors with dementia

Although dementia signs and severity vary, there are many support techniques to improve conversations with your loved one. In general, it’s best to remain patient, clear, and understanding.

Here are ten communication strategies to boost your bond with your loved one.

1. Limit potential distractions

Aim to find a quiet and comfortable spot to talk. Turn off the TV or any music playing in your home. If you’re in a café, store, or noisy place, consider finding a seat or area in a quiet corner away from the hustle and bustle.

Even simple distractions like these make conversation harder for everyone and can be especially overwhelming for someone with Alzheimer’s.

2. Speak naturally and use gestures

It’s important to speak clearly, simply, and in complete sentences, while using a calm and friendly voice.

Besides using your voice, try to communicate using your body, incorporating subtle movements. Demonstrate your meaning with visual cues or gestures. For example, if you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” use an arm motion with your invitation.

3. Use your name and others’ names

Identifying yourself and others by name rather than by relationship is helpful, Gurung says. People with dementia may be more “present” in an earlier time in their life. This could be before you were their child or partner. 

Rather than trying to reorient to today, it can be better to say, “Hi, it’s me, Brenda,” instead of, “Hi Mom. It’s Brenda, your daughter.” Even with family members, you may find it more useful to call them by their preferred name rather than their title.

4. Talk about one thing at a time

Someone with dementia may not be able to engage in the mental juggling needed to maintain a conversation with multiple threads. It’s best to keep it concise and simple.

Ask open-ended, observational questions, instead of quizzing or asking too much at once. If you’re looking through an old photo album, for example, you could say, “This is a beautiful dress. What do you think?” instead of, “Do you remember your wedding day?” Asking specifically about the dress  keeps the conversation simple and direct.

5. Use nonverbal cues

Words aren’t the only powerful way to convey meaning and understanding: Your actions go a long way in making a connection. When dementia is advanced, you may find more success utilizing nonverbal communication.

Try to use these nonverbal gestures in your conversations with a parent or loved one with dementia:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Smile
  • Hold their hand
  • Sit quietly and be “in the moment”

6. Avoid overwhelming questions

It’s important to offer manageable choices with visual cues. Asking a questions like, “What would you like to wear?” can be overwhelming — it presents too many options.

Instead, hold up two shirts and ask, “Would you like the shirt with the yellow flowers, or the shirt with the blue stripes?” This simplifies the choice. 

7. Be creative

Don’t underestimate the power of communicating through smells, singing, and other creative methods. This may be especially helpful with someone in the later stages of dementia. You might consider:

  • Singing a favorite hymn or song
  • Flipping through old photo albums
  • Placing different smells in small dishes to experience together, such as freshly cut grass, ground cumin, or flowers

8. Be patient and avoid jumping in

It’s best to give your loved one extra time to process what you say. If you ask a question, patiently wait for their response and avoid rushing an answer. Get comfortable with silence while your loved one is thinking.

When your loved one is struggling for a word, it can be tempting to jump in. But rather than helping, you may unintentionally derail their thought process, Gurung says.

9. Understand there will be good days and bad day

While dementia is a progressive disease that gradually worsens, people with dementia will have ups and downs just like anyone else. Enjoy the good times, and do your best during the difficult days. Friends, family members, caregiver support groups, and respite care options can provide emotional support and care when needed.

10. Recognize what you’re up against

Because there’s no cure for dementia, people with the disease will gradually have a more difficult time understanding and communicating. “Alzheimer’s and other dementias are a hard journey,” says Gurung. “I always encourage loved ones and professionals to educate themselves to better support, empower, celebrate, and encourage people with these diseases. We’re in this together.”

Gurung advises families to continue learning using the following tools:

Memory care can help seniors with dementia

If you’re seeing signs your loved one needs more care, our Senior Living Advisors can connect you with memory care communities and other resources nearby. Memory care communities specialize in caring for and communicating with seniors who have dementia.

Merritt Whitley
Merritt Whitley

Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.

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