Updated: Mar 11
Dementia is a progressive illness that, over time, will affect a person’s ability to remember and understand basic everyday facts, such as names, dates and places. It will gradually affect the way a person communicates and their ability to express themselves and so it is extremely likely that you will need to learn new ways to understand and engage with them.
So, how do you communicate with someone with Dementia?
If you notice someone is starting fewer conversations themselves, try to start and engage them in conversation. Encourage them to communicate; use simple language and speak clearly and slowly in short sentences.
Make sure you give them time to respond, because they may feel pressured if you try to speed up their answers. Acknowledge what they have said - even if they do not answer your question, or if what they say seems out of context – show that you have heard them and encourage them to say more.
Let them speak for themselves during discussions about their welfare or health issues and if asking a question, try to give simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choices so as not to over-complicate or cause confusion.
It is also important that you encourage the person to communicate what they want, however they can. We all find it frustrating when we cannot communicate effectively or are misunderstood. It may also help to rephrase questions because the person may not be able to answer in the way they used to.
Body language and physical contact becomes even more significant when speech is difficult for a person with dementia. Communication is not just about talking. Gestures, movement, and facial expressions all convey meaning and can certainly help you get a message across.
Make them feel comfortable, use open body language and gentle gestures as well as kind and recognisable facial expressions.
Smile and try holding a person’s hand or pat their arm while they are talking as this can help provide reassurance and make you feel closer – be mindful to watch their body language and listen to what they are saying to assess whether they are comfortable with the level of contact.
When someone has difficulty speaking or understanding, try to be patient and remain calm as it can help the person communicate more easily. Use a positive and friendly tone and talk to them at a respectful distance to avoid intimidating them – being at the same level or lower than they are (for example, if they are sitting) can also help.
Communication is a two-way process, and you will probably have to learn to listen more carefully and be more aware of non-verbal messages, such as facial expressions and body language.
Active listening helps. Stop what you are doing to give the person your full attention. Remember to keep eye contact as this will encourage them to look at you, when either of you are talking.
Be mindful not to interrupt them or try to finish their sentence, even if you think you know what they are saying. It is also helpful to repeat what you heard back to the person and ask if its accurate or ask them to repeat what they said.
If what the person is saying does not seem to make sense, try to look for the meaning behind the words.
Try to minimise distractions that may get in the way of communication, such as the television or the radio playing too loudly, but always check they are happy for you to do so first.
Creating a memory book can help the person with dementia remember special times - a collection of photos that represent happy events like weddings, holidays and the birth of children can be helpful. Not only for the person, but it can also help you and other health and social care professionals to appreciate the person’s life and past experiences and an idea of their likes.
Source: NHS, AgeUK