Communicating With Someone Who Has Dementia
Does someone you love have trouble finding the right words because of the limitations of dementia? Learn how to keep the lines of communication...

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picture of elderly man and woman Communicating With Someone Who Has Dementia

People with dementia often have trouble finding the right words to express themselves. This can cause frustration, anger and even aggressive behavior.

There are ways to avoid this frustration, though, by making communication easier. First, it's important to check with your loved one's doctor to make sure these problems aren't caused by medication or an unrelated health problem.

Signs of a problem
These may be signs that your loved one is having word-finding difficulty:

  • Using familiar words repeatedly
  • Cursing when it's out of character
  • Having trouble logically organizing words
  • Losing the train of thought
  • Relying on nonverbal gestures
  • Making up words to describe objects

The following tips can help you and your loved one communicate more effectively:

  • Watch your body language. Make sure it is relaxed and reassured.
  • Limit distractions. Turn off radios and TVs. Address your loved one by name and remind her or him of your name and relation.
  • Use simple, short sentences. State your message clearly. Rephrase the question if your loved one doesn't understand.
  • Try to ask simple questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no" response. Ask them one at a time. Do not give him or her too many choices.
  • Be patient. Give your loved one time to put an answer into words. If he or she struggles, help.
  • Break tasks down into steps. If your loved one forgets a step, remind him or her gently. Help with the tasks your loved one can no longer accomplish on his or her own.
  • Provide affection and reassurance. If your loved one confuses reality, don't argue or try to convince your loved one that he or she is wrong. For instance, if your loved one says that he's waiting for his father to pick him up, say, "Your father used to pick you up every day, didn't he?"
  • Write notes and provide reminders. Leave written directions in clear language or leave pointers on how to do simple tasks. For instance, lay clothes out on her bed in the order that she should put them on.
  • Reminisce. Your loved one may not remember what happened in the last hour, but may remember incidents from 40 years ago. Ask questions about his or her distant past rather than what happened earlier in the day. Share memories, photos and funny stories.
  • Laugh. Use humor to keep things light. Your loved one will still enjoy socializing and laughing. Remember to laugh with - not at - your loved one.
  • Show respect. Don't talk down to your loved one or talk about your loved one as if he or she isn't there. This can cause him or her to feel isolated and excluded.

Avoiding aggressive behavior
If your loved one is having communication problems, you may also see some aggression. Anger might be triggered if your loved one feels his or her personal space is being invaded, too. This could happen while being dressed or bathed or when visiting the doctor.

Having to make too many choices may cause frustration. Make choices simple. Don't ask, "What do you want to wear today?" Instead, hold up two shirts and ask, "Which one do you want to wear?"

If your loved one has an outburst while trying to complete a task, remain calm and stop the task. Don't argue with or punish your loved one. Redirect his or her attention to another activity, speaking in a calm, soothing voice.

Verbal assaults from someone with dementia are more common than physical ones. Watch what situations cause frustration and avoid them as much as possible.

Let the doctor know about any aggressive behavior or change in behavior. There may be a medical reason for the change. Also, there may be some treatment that can help manage the behavior.

By Diane Griffith, Staff Writer
Created on 05/29/2007
Updated on 09/14/2010
Sources:
  • Alzheimer's Society. Communicating.
  • Family Caregiver Alliance. Caregiver's guide to understanding dementia behavior.
  • Alzheimer's Association. Communication.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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