Portrait of happy grandmother with her daughter

How to talk to a person with dementia

For the person suffering from dementia, it is, unfortunately, a matter of time for the disease to progress and for the deterioration to be observed. The minor forgetfulness gradually transforms into a severe impairment, and in such state, the individuality of the person is somehow lost.

It is therefore very important to know how to connect and communicate with a person that suffers from dementia.

Sometimes people suffering from dementia are referred to as “empty shells”, as they were supposed to be empty shells of a person they used to be. While the condition does change people and makes them significantly different from what they appeared to be formerly, they for sure are no “empty shells”. They just have problems with communication and their inner-self is sometimes deeply hidden. It is very difficult to unlock the shell and at some days the shell may not open at all. But the more we know about the disease, the more we can actually do to unlock the shell.

Here are a few tips on how to effectively communicate with someone who has moderate to severe dementia:

Understand what you’re fighting with

Dementia WILL get worse over time; gradually, slowly, but it definitely will. So you can prepare yourself for even more difficult times understanding what the person with dementia is actually saying. The general communication problems will grow over time.

Be aware of good and bad days

People with dementia have ups and downs, just like anybody else, but perhaps more noticeable.

Speak clearly in a warm and calm voice

Kindness and graciousness are always welcome in any communication, but patronising and disdaining is certainly unnecessary in this case.

Try to find a quiet place for a conversation, with no distractions.

It does really help if you try to find a silent place with as little distractions as possible. It will help both parties to focus on the conversation even more.

Listen actively

If something is not clear, it should be clarified and some additional questions should politely be asked.

Refer to people by their names

Avoid using pronouns like “he” or “she”. Try using names instead, especially when greeting a person with dementia.

Use non-verbal signs

Eye-contact, face expression or smile may speak for a hundred words, especially when dementia is already advanced. Nodding or shaking head, murmuring is also ways of communication. Non-verbal communication may at some point be the only form of contact available.

Talk about one thing at a time

Remember you are talking to a person with dementia. It may be difficult to grasp and link together multiple threads of the conversation.

Repeat if needed

It is always good to repeat what the person with dementia said, just to make sure you have understood them correctly. On the other hand, it may be needed to repeat what we have said because it has not been understood by them. All in all, repetitions are very welcome in communicating with people suffering from dementia.

Don’t correct the speaker and don’t quarrel

It’s not worth correcting the person all the time during the conversation, even if you know what they say is not necessarily correct. Sometimes the talk itself is more precious than the actual subject of it.

Presence is the key

Sometimes it’s enough just to sit together, perhaps hold hands. Sometimes words are not that much important.

Have patience

Give the person a moment to process what they heard and be able to prepare a reply. Bear in mind that they may have some difficulties putting their thoughts into accurate words.

Please remember, positive communication can help a person with dementia maintain their self-esteem, dignity, and self-worth. Using appropriate body language, eye contact and caring attitude are very important to keep the communication at a satisfyingly high level.