How To Talk To Someone Who Has Dementia

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By Michelle Wyman, Dementia Specialist
Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging

How to communicate with people who have dementia:

  • Always state their name before speaking. This attracts their attention.
  • Maintain eye contact throughout the conversation.
  • Avoid speaking from another room or from behind. They may have forgotten you were in the room and become startled or misunderstand you.
  • Keep noise to a minimum — turn off radios, TVs and dishwashers — especially while telling them something.
  • Limit conversation to one person speaking at a time. If you’ve lost him or her, restate what the conversation is about. This will help him or her “catch up” and feel included again. Persons with dementia complain about being left out.

  • Use closed-ended questions that can be answered with yes or no, or those that offer a choice of no more than two things. Instead of asking, “What do you want to eat?” say, “It is lunch. Do you want tuna or egg sandwich with your soup?”
  • Avoid questions that ask what, when, where, who, how and especially WHY. They often won’t know why, especially why they did a certain thing. Instead try to discover the intent of the behavior.
  • Use visual cues more than words. People with cognitive impairment respond more easily to visual prompts. It “reminds” the brain to do what it is supposed to do.
  • Keep language simple and slow. Avoid switching subjects.
  • If they have trouble finding a word, and you think you know it, supply it: “Is sweater the word you are looking for?”
  • If they use the wrong word, ignore it. Do not correct them.
  • If the behavior is repetitive, you might try keeping a log to discover the trigger for the behavior. Write down when, what was going on just before, who was present. Often this will reveal what or who the trigger is for causing this behavior/emotion.

Other tips:

  • Avoid explaining why something must be done. Just state the task.
  • Focus on an alternative activity to distract from an undesired one.
  • Point out positive behaviors and avoid criticizing negative ones.
  • Mood is contagious. Exhibit the mood you want them to be in.
  • Mirroring a behavior jumpstarts the mind’s memory for doing it.
  • Inform rather than reorient. Avoid quizzing
  • Give choices as often as possible, limiting them to 2. It empowers.
  • Slow down your speech and actions to match theirs.
  • Stay on one subject at a time. Maintain eye contact.
  • Satisfy the immediate emotional need; provide reassurance, recognition of this need.
  • Avoid use of logic and reason —  it’s hard for the brain to process.

Want to learn more about dementia? Register for a free talk by Dr. Amy Sanders, director of the the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute’s Memory Care Center, Sept. 26 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm at Arbor Rose at Jerome Home. To register, click here.

Dementia specialists are available at all Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging locations: Bloomfield, Hartford, New Britain, Meriden, Newington, Southington, Vernon and Willimantic. Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging, a not for profit member of Hartford HealthCare Senior Services, is a resource and assessment center designed to enhance access to services and information related to attaining optimal quality of life for seniors and their caregivers. For more information, call Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging, 1.877.424.4641 or click here

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