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Communicating With Compassion

Tips for Communicating With Loved Ones Living with Dementia

It’s never easy knowing what to say to someone you love who has dementia. When a spouse or parent is diagnosed, the progression of their symptoms may come as less of a shock unlike loved ones you only see occasionally. But remember, as difficult and frightening as it is for you, it is also likely very confusing and frustrating for the person living with dementia. By knowing how to communicate with someone with dementia, you can bridge the gap between their verbal limitations and your desire to show support. Often, listening and being present is enough to show you care.

In the Early Stages

  • They may be having trouble finding words or remembering the names of things. Try not to interrupt them, even if you think you know what they’re saying.
  • Don’t ignore or alienate them from the conversation. Encourage them to join in.
  • If you want to know how the person is doing, just ask. They may be happy to talk openly about their disease.
  • Ask them questions and give them time to respond without finishing their sentences (unless they ask you to help them).
  • It’s okay to laugh. A little bit of humor can go a long way in easing tension and making communication flow more easily.

In the Middle Stages

  • Engage the person in one-on-one conversation in a quiet space that has minimal distractions.
  • Always be supportive. They may feel discouraged when failing to find the right words. Be positive and patient as they share their thoughts.
  • Stop what you’re doing so you can give the person your full attention while they speak and maintain eye contact. Looking away may show that you aren’t interested in what they have to say.
  • Avoid criticizing or overcorrecting their language. Instead, try to find the meaning in what they communicate and repeat what you hear for clarification.
  • Speak slowly and clearly.

In the Late Stages

  • Treat the person with dignity and respect. Do not talk down to the person and avoid speaking to the person as if he or she isn’t there.
  • Identify yourself and be sure to approach them from the front.
  • If you don’t understand what they’re saying, encourage them to point or gesture.
  • Sometimes the emotions being expressed are more important than what’s being said. Pay attention to how they’re feeling.
  • In place of words, use touch, sights, sounds, smells and tastes as a form of communication.

When in doubt, know that your presence and support are most important. If you ever have any doubts on how best to communicate with a person living with dementia, don’t hesitate to ask their immediate family, friends, or care provider for their input.

– Darby Morhardt, PhD, LCSW, Northwestern Medical Group