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Tips to Communicate Effectively with Someone Who Has Dementia

Dementia can be devastating for both those who are experiencing it and the caregivers who are trying to communicate with them. The progression of it varies depending on the individual and the specific diagnosis, and it can become more pronounced over time. Imagine how frustrating it would be to lose the ability to communicate effectively.

Knowing how to talk with someone who has memory issues can improve your interactions with them in profound ways. Here are six methods that can help smooth out communication and promote a calm and safe space for your loved one to express himself or herself. 

  1. Become aware of nonverbal cues

Nonverbal cues—both yours and the one who has dementia—are an essential communication method that can be easily overlooked. Just because a person is not able to use words does not mean that the ability to understand body language and facial expressions has been lost. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, irritable, or sad about your loved one’s situation, your body language will convey these emotions. Trying to remain pleasant and upbeat in your loved one’s presence can help maintain a safe and comfortable atmosphere. Assume that the person understands facial expressions and gestures and adjust them accordingly. Likewise, know that a patient’s non-verbal cues showing frustration, fear, or anger, are a way of communicating with you. As dementia progresses to its later stages, recognizing non-verbal cues become increasingly important. Your loved one may not be able to communicate such needs as hunger, thirst, or a need to use the bathroom. Pay attention and learn how body language communicates various needs.

  1. Use validation therapy

Sometimes caregivers have a hard time when a person with dementia is expressed contradictory or inaccurate thoughts. Understand that this is part of the condition. Validation therapy places emphasis on the emotions of the conversation, as opposed to the facts. While it can be tempting to correct the person’s memory of an event or situation, it generally backfires and causes the person to become angry or agitated. Keep these tips in mind.

  • Never argue or try to correct the person
  • Look for the emotion behind what they are saying and validate that
  • Avoid conflict with the person, even if it means letting go of your tendency toward accuracy
  1. Be aware of using visual clues

People with dementia can experience changes in vision and perception, especially peripheral vision, and sudden movements can be frightening. Approach from the front, and if appropriate, introduce yourself or identify your presence. Maintain eye contact and keep your face at eye level with them so as not to be intimidating. Exhibit a calm and pleasant demeanor. 

  1. Be mindful of their space

Recognize and acknowledge that their speech and thought processes may take extra time. When you are with them, create a safe space for them to be right where they are in the moment and be present with them in that place. If you ask them a question, allow up to 21 seconds for them to respond. Rephrase the question if necessary and let them go at their own pace. 

  1. Use physical cues

For your safety and theirs, ask them for permission before touching them. For example, ask if you may hold hands. When doing so, place your hand on the underside, as this allows the other to feel more in control. In addition, palm-to-palm pressure can be calming and reassuring. When standing, position yourself to the side but don’t crowd, hover or loom over the person, as this can create anxiety. Respect personal space just as you would anyone else. 

  1. Access the right brain when possible

If speech is an issue, this means there is a problem with the left side of the brain. Because the right side of the brain controls rhyme and rhythm, you may be able to do one of the following:

  • Sing to them or with them
  • Recite poetry or rhymes with them
  • Say prayers they may have memorized in the past

Alternatively, they may respond well to pleasant music or sounds. It is also good to keep in mind that the left brain is in charge of impulse control, so if your patient is showing inappropriate behavior or using words they wouldn’t normally use, it is part of the disease. Do not scold them for this behavior, simply redirect and change the path of the situation.

There are many things you can do to foster better communication with someone who has a memory or cognitive disorder. When in doubt, remember that patience, compassion, and kindness are things that almost all humans respond to positively.

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