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How to Talk to Someone Who Has Dementia

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Updated January 15, 2014

Communicating with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia can sometimes be a challenge, especially if you aren’t familiar with that person. Imagine you are hired to work at a facility and are helping to provide care to people with dementia. Here are a few tips for success:

  • Don’t infantilize the person.
    What does that mean? Don’t talk down to the person or treat him or her like an infant. Have you ever observed how people talk to babies? They might use a high pitched tone and get close to the baby’s face. While this is appropriate for infants, it’s not fitting for communicating with adults. Regardless of how much the person with dementia can or cannot understand, treat him or her with honor and use a respectful tone of voice.

  • Use their names and preferred titles.
    Learn what the person’s preferred name is and use it. Be careful with using "honey," "sweetheart" or similar terms. You may mean it genuinely in affection, but it can also come across as demeaning or patronizing.

  • Consider using gentle touch to ask for their attention.
    While some people might get defensive if you break their bubble of personal space around them, many appreciate a gentle touch. You could give a little pat on the shoulders or hold her hand as you talk with her. Personal touch is important and can communicate that you care.

  • DON’T JUST TALK LOUDLY BECAUSE YOU THINK THAT THE PERSON IS OLDER AND MIGHT BE HARD OF HEARING.
    Capitalizing every word in that sentence feels a little like I’m yelling at you, right? It can feel the same to a person with dementia when we use a loud tone with them. Use a clear, normal tone of voice to start a conversation with someone. If the person doesn’t respond or you become aware that he or she has a hearing problem, you can increase your volume. Speaking in a slightly lower register can also help if someone has a hearing problem.

  • Don’t use slang or figures of speech.
    As dementia progresses, it can become harder for someone to understand what you’re trying to tell them. For example, telling a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease that it’s "no use crying over spilled milk" might result in him looking to see where the milk has spilled, rather than end up comforting him or encouraging him not tp focus on a past problem.

  • Don’t ignore the person.
    If you have a question, ask the individual first to give him a chance to respond before turning to his family for an answer. Also, don’t talk about the person as if he’s not there. He might understand more than you give him credit for, so convey your respect by addressing him directly.

  • Smile and make eye contact.
    In dementia, a genuine smile can reduce the chance of challenging behaviors since the person may feel reassured by your non-verbal communication. Your warm smile and eye contact convey that you are glad to be with her and are two of the most important factors in communicating with anyone.

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association. Communication. Accessed March 28, 2012. http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_communication.asp

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