For someone suffering from dementia, communication can become very challenging. Both for the individual suffering from the disease, and for those who are attempting to communicate with them. Here are some things to understand as well as tips for communication.


Dementia Affects the Brain and Communication

There are billions of neurons in our brains. These neurons transmit messages between parts of the brain and body. Dementia’s underlying afflictions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, destroy neurons and disrupt the vital communication occurring in the brain and body, affecting memory, reasoning, communication, and behavior. As dementia progresses, the patient’s ability to understand and express themselves diminishes. Thankfully, there are signs you can watch out for and proper approaches to dealing with someone living with this disease.


Common Difficulties

You may find someone with dementia exhibiting some of these symptoms.

  • Frustration
  • Processing words slowly
  • Not being able to find the “right” words or any words at all
  • Using nonsensical words
  • Mixing up the order of words
  • Not understanding what is said to them
  • Unable to stay focused on the conversation or moving from one train of thought to another in a seemingly random way
  • Difficulty replying to questions
  • Mumbling


Communication Tips

What are some communication techniques you should use when communicating with a person with dementia? Whether you are providing care or are trying to communicate with a loved one suffering from dementia, these tips should help you.

  • Be patient. Do not try to finish their sentences or find their words. Let them finish their thoughts before jumping in. 
  • Be Kind With Your Words and Tone. Don’t speak down or raise your voice. Remember that they are likely as frustrated, if not more, than you are. If they repeat questions, answer without being confrontational. Speaking in a soothing, warm tone can have a calming effect.
  • Do not try to correct what they are saying. Although it may be inaccurate, it may be their reality and correcting them can cause further confusion or agitation. 
  • Avoid Slang and Figures of Speech. Trying to process what someone is saying is hard enough without having to decipher unfamiliar terminology or trying to figure out metaphors. Speak simply and avoid “flowery” language, or you may lose their attention or confuse them. 
  • Call them by their proper name, not terms like “honey” or “sweetheart.”
  • Tap Into Long-Term Memories. Dementia affects short-term memory, but in most cases, people retain memories of their youth and early adulthood. Help them reminisce about happy times — not bad times and encourage them to relive pleasant memories. Photographs or music can go a long way to jogging memory.
  • Recognize past accomplishments and successes. Something as simple as ‘I know you are a good father’ or ‘I have seen some of your beautiful artwork’ can go a long way in making someone feel good if only for a short time. 
  • Avoid things like “Don’t you remember?” and curb any urge to correct or nitpick about words. Reminding them that their communication skills are not what they once were is demoralizing and may make them feel embarrassed. 


Body Language

Non-verbal communication is extremely important when communicating with individuals with dementia. Your body language will go a long way to keeping them calm and reassured.

  • Smile. A smile is disarming and reassuring and signals that communication will be positive and validating. Someone with dementia will be more open and willing to try to communicate if you are smiling and speaking in a friendly tone.
  • Posture. A rigid body posture and crossed arms inspires unease, whereas a relaxed posture takes the pressure off. Face your body toward the individual. Turning away may make them feel that you are hiding something. 
  • Eye Contact. Make eye contact when speaking to help them feel more engaged, but try not to stare. That can be a little off-putting and may make someone uncomfortable.
  • Touch. Where appropriate, pat them on the back, hold their hand, or even hug them. Many elderly are missing physical contact. Providing gentle tells them that they are loved and that people want to be with them.
  • Likewise, pay attention to their body language. Are they a little hunched over, eyes downcast? These could signal that they are feeling sad. As you would with anyone else who feels down, use a combination of body language and kind words and humor where appropriate to promote a sense of comfort and reassurance.

By using these communication techniques and exercising patience, you can have more positive and productive communications with people living with dementia. If you would like more information, check out our resources page.