How to communicate with a person with dementia 

28 Apr 2022 | Alzheimers

Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of progressive conditions that affect the brain and make communication difficult. There are actually over 200 subtypes of dementia including commonly known ones such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. 

Dementia can affect people of any age but it’s most common in people over the age of 65. The numbers are rising and it is expected that by 2025 there will be 1 million people living with dementia in the UK. 

Over time, a dementia sufferer’s cognitive function declines which affects their memory and their ability to understand facts such as names, dates, and places.  

As the condition progresses, their ability to process information becomes progressively weaker and responses become delayed. Communicating with someone with dementia can become very challenging and cause misunderstandings, confusion, and frustration for everyone involved. 

Signs that communication is being affected 

A person with dementia may have difficulty remembering words or communicating clearly. You might notice some of the following during conversations: 

  • Describing an object rather than naming it. 
  • Having trouble with finding the right word. 
  • Repeating themselves. 
  • Losing their train of thought. 
  • Speaking less often. 
  • Reverting to a first language. 

How to communicate with a person with dementia 

The most important thing to remember is to have patience. Dementia affects the short term memory the most so discussing recent events can be difficult. However frustrated you may feel, you can be sure the dementia sufferer is feeling even more frustrated. 

Do this… 

Do use their name and preferred title rather than “darling” or “love”. Even if meant with affection, it can come across as demeaning or patronising. 

Do use gentle touch such as a hand on the shoulder or holding hands while speaking. This obviously depends on the person and if they are happy with this. But, personal touch can feel loving and provide reassurance and so instill confidence. 

Do position yourself at eye level, smile and make eye contact. These non-verbal communication cues provide reassurance and show respectfulness and presence. 

Don’t do this… 

Don’t speak to them like a child. They may be having difficulty processing your words or finding the words they need to express themselves, but they are not the same as a toddler who is learning and understanding language for the first time. This can feel very patronising and demoralising to a previously independent adult. 

Don’t ignore them. If you have a question, first ask the person with dementia and give them the opportunity to answer, rather than turning straight to a family member. 

Don’t talk loudly or in a loud environment. The way sound is processed can be different for someone with dementia so loud noises can be frightening. A loud environment can make trying to understand the conversation much more difficult too. Ideally, ensure all communication is in an ideal environment as recommended by the Alzheimer’s Society

Don’t use slang when talking as it can make understanding the conversation more difficult. Sometimes the brain can regress to a time much earlier in the person’s life when some of those words may not have even existed. For the same reason, it is common to see people revert to their first language that they spoke when growing up if they have been speaking a second language throughout their adult life. 

Don’t pressure them to try and answer questions. It can be frightening and overwhelming for them to know they can’t find the answer, especially if they see the other person is becoming frustrated and agitated waiting for a response. 

Eximius can help you 

Eximius companions provide a range of support and care for people with dementia. You can learn more here

You may also be interested in what happens in the early stages of dementia and can a person with dementia live at home?