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Elderly woman sharing a tender moment with caregiver holding hands.

Do’s and Don’ts for Speaking With People With Dementia

How Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias affects people varies widely: A mother who used to be quiet may become chatty; a father no longer remembers his daughter; a demure grandmother might now be heard using obscenities. Families who had a shorthand for speaking with each other now find themselves at a loss for what to say. 

Because of the damage to brain cells caused by dementia, those who suffer from it have difficulty expressing their ideas and emotions. Along with memory loss, they may also experience a decline in judgement and reasoning. That’s what makes communicating with a loved one who is living with dementia a challenge, says Sallie Carlin, director of memory care at Willow Gardens Memory Care at United Hebrew of New Rochelle. 

“When your loved one is struggling and says something to you that doesn’t make sense, it is hard to know what to say. It’s hard to accept that they can’t communicate with you in the way that you are used to,” says Carlin. “What we tell our families is to start by meeting them where they are. In other words, be patient and supportive and observe how they are feeling.”

At Willow Gardens, staff members in every department — from housekeeping and dietary to clinical, therapeutic, and administrative employees — are specially trained by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America so that they are comfortable and confident in interacting and caring for individuals with dementia. 

Their goal is to find common connections with their residents to help them feel understood, find purpose, and make the most of each day, according to Carlin. She shares the following tips, based on her training and experiences at Willow Gardens, to help ease the challenges in communicating with your loved ones with dementia: 

Don’t ask them if they remember facts. “Because they might have trouble remembering things, don’t say, ‘remember my name,’ mom,” says Carlin. “You might want to know how much they remember but those kinds of questions can be agitating. Instead ask questions to find out what they need, like ‘are you hungry?’”

Do use nonverbal communication. It’s good to make eye contact when speaking to a person with dementia, notes Carlin. “A simple smile can be reassuring. Keep your body language relaxed and open. A gentle touch on the arm or a hug, if you know they are open to it, are nice ways to show that you care.”

Do provide choices. “Asking someone what they want to do might be overwhelming because there is recall involved in evaluating their options. That can be frustrating. Instead, provide a few choices, such as “would you like to go for a walk, read, or watch a movie?”

Don’t correct them. If they say they are late for an appointment, it’s not productive to tell them they don’t have an appointment. If they get the details wrong about something that happened in the past, let it go. “Arguing about who’s right isn’t going to make anyone feel good,” notes Carlin. “If they say, ‘someone took my keys,’ offer to look for them together. If they say, ‘I’m late for an appointment,’ redirect. Say you’ll go together later. The goal is to reduce agitation and meet them where they are in that moment.”

Do get creative. At Willow Gardens, staff take time to learn about a person’s past, including family, careers, and hobbies. Then they plan customized activities, such as arts and crafts and musical entertainment, that allow their residents to connect to their past. These creative pursuits often trigger memories and spark conversations. For example, residents recently created travelogues about Paris. 

Says Carlin, “We created collages with images of Paris, listened to French music and read stories. We had wonderful conversations about work trips and family vacations. One of our residents who is a former ballet dancer regaled us with tales of her past performances in Paris. We’ve found similar success with cooking activities, with talk of food and favorite meals.”

When communicating with someone with dementia, sometimes it’s best to just keep things simple, says Carlin. “Sometimes all they need is from you to hold their hand or play their favorite song.”

To learn more about Willow Gardens Memory Care, call 914-336-2338 or contact us online.