One of the most difficult aspects of having a loved one with dementia is not being able to communicate with them like you used to. You may find Mom is not up to the long visits you used to have every Sunday afternoon, or that when you call to ask Dad’s advice you only seem to confuse him.
People with dementia often experience a progressive loss of ability to remember people and events. They may have difficulty finding and saying the right words and organizing their thoughts. You may find their responses are slower to come, if they come at all. In addition, some people with dementia experience irritability, anxiety, and changing moods, making interactions difficult and stressful. But there are ways you can improve your communication with your loved one with dementia. Here are several tips for doing just that.
Communicating with a Loved One with Dementia
Sit together. Don’t sit in the chair across the room and holler across to Mom. Sit beside her, so she can clearly see your face. Always announce your presence: “Hi Mom, it’s Adam.” Time your visits so that you will not feel rushed. Trying to squeeze in a quick visit between work and picking up the kids will frustrate both of you.
Speak slowly and simply. This is not the time to give grandma a play-by-play account of your son’s soccer game. A simpler message, such as “Joshua scored his first goal at last night’s game!” is more likely to get your point across. Bring along a photo of the game to help cement what you are saying. Make sure you use names frequently throughout your conversation, rather than switching to “he” or “she”, which can get confusing.
Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. If your message didn’t come across the first time, repeat it or rephrase what you said. Avoid asking broad questions, such as “What would you like for dinner?”. Instead, say “Would chicken pot pie be okay for dinner?”
Wait for a response. Don’t assume your loved one hasn’t heard you if they don’t answer right away. Give them a few minutes to sort things out before repeating yourself. Pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as nodding or grimacing, as well. These can be equally helpful in figuring out what your loved one needs.
Avoid distractions. You are most likely to have a successful conversation in a quiet room, when the person with dementia is not hungry, tired, cold, or hot.
Watch their mood. Watch carefully for indications that your loved one is becoming frustrated. Their responses may become irritable or muddled, or they may communicate by wrinkling their forehead or pulling at their bedsheets. This is your cue to change the subject or activity. Do validate their feelings though: “I am sorry you are feeling anxious Mom; would you like to go walk in the garden?” Holding hands as you talk can also soothe anxiety and help maintain a connection.
Have a list of go-to topics (and topics to avoid). Over time you may find that talking about her childhood calms Mom down, while talking about Dad’s old job tends to get him worked up. Make notes on what seems to light your loved one up and what seems to bring them down.
Be flexible. Something that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. Some days will be better than others. Enjoy the good days and do your best do adapt to the more difficult ones.