We all need people in our lives. We all need to feel a connection and be a part of something. This need to belong does not go away when someone has dementia. Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about caregiver isolation with our #iCareforCaregivers campaign, but caregivers aren’t the only ones who are isolated. Often when someone has dementia, social circles shrink (and perhaps even disappear).
Why? Let’s be honest. It can be a bit awkward talking with a person who has dementia. You might not know what to talk about, or that person may say or do strange things. Also, it’s hard to see someone you love lose their abilities and memory.
But here’s the truth: it may be awkward and difficult, but that person needs you. Your friend or family member’s life will be fuller and better with you an active part of it. Those with dementia should still be involved in relational things. It’s important to include them in conversations and social events.
You may be thinking, I don’t know what to say to this person anymore. How do I interact? We’re here to help! Here are our best tips for communicating with someone who has dementia. If you have questions that aren’t addressed here, or you would like advice about a specific situation, please give us a call at 901.854.1200. We would be happy to help.
- Limit distractions. It can be confusing for someone with dementia to participate in a conversation when there’s a bunch of stuff going on at the same time. Turn off the TV, put your cell phone away, and move to a quiet space. It’s best to be in a small group or one-on-one.
- Set a good tone. Your attitude and body language convey a message just like your words do. Smile and make eye contact. Be kind and sincere, gentle but not demeaning. Talk to the person like an adult. Address him or her by name. Use humor when you can.
- Be clear, and keep it simple. Slow your speech and use easy to understand language. If they don’t understand, repeat. If they still don’t understand, rephrase. Use visual prompts to help convey your message. If you need to, plan out a couple of conversation topics ahead of time. If your grandma likes to talk about the lake she lived by as a kid and making pumpkin pie with a special family recipe, you might bring pictures of the lake and the pie recipe with you to talk about those things.
- Remind, don’t quiz. Don’t say: Do you remember when…? Who is in this picture? Who am I? What is my name? If your friend had a broken leg, you would never ask him to run a marathon with you. That’s what you’re doing when you quiz someone with dementia. They physically can’t remember. Also, how do you feel when people ask you questions you can’t answer? You feel bad about yourself. Help your loved one preserve dignity. Set that person up for success. Instead of quizzing, talk about times past. Say something like: That Christmas we went to the Grand Canyon was one of my favorite holidays.
- Suggest, don’t correct. Instead of saying: “You don’t need to wear your heavy coat outside, it’s 85 degrees.” Say this: “Let’s go feel the weather outside and see if you think you need that coat.”
- Avoid saying “No.” Offer alternatives. Instead of saying: “No, you can’t eat lunch, you just ate lunch 20 minutes ago.” Say this: “How about we get a little snack after we fold the laundry.”
- Redirect. If the person gets agitated, overly worried, or stuck on a negative subject, acknowledge the feelings and then redirect. Here’s an example. You are visiting your friend in her home. She says: “The children are just being awful right now. They leave their things all over the house and are out all hours of the night. I just don’t know what to do about them.” You know your friend’s children aren’t teenagers anymore but are grown and live in a different city, but you don’t correct. You acknowledge the feeling and respond with reassurance: “That rebellious phase is tough isn’t it. I think we both went through one of those ourselves, but we turned out okay. Your children sure are lucky to have you as a mom. You’re a great mom.” Suggest an activity, steer the conversation in a more positive direction, or offer a new conversation topic.
- Listen. It may take your friend or family member a while to respond. That’s okay! Take time to listen. If the words aren’t making sense, listen for the feeling behind them. Are they anxious or confused? Provide reassurance. Are they joking? Play along!
- Be present. Even if the person can’t respond, keep talking. Your presence is a sign of love and care. Show your friend or family member that you care and that they still matter.