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Why You Need to Change Your Communication Style as Your Loved One’s Dementia Progresses

senior and daughter talking

When someone is living with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, their ability to communicate will change as the illness progresses. Knowing how to communicate to people with dementia requires patience, compassion and understanding. Not only will you need to adapt how to communicate with a loved one, but you’ll also need to develop good listening skills so you can understand them better.

While every person will experience dementia differently, you’ll probably see these things become more pronounced as your loved one’s disease progresses:

  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts and words in a logical order
  • Substituting a description for the name of a familiar object
  • Using the same words again and again
  • Losing their train of thought
  • Using gestures instead of speaking

Early stages:

What’s happening: In the earliest stages or “mild” dementia, your loved one will still appear to be functioning normally. He or she may still be driving, working, and taking part in social activities. However, as their brain undergoes changes due to their illness, they’ll begin to have significant problems with memory loss and reasoning. They may express anxiety and frustration about not being able to express themselves the way they’re used to.

What you can do: This is a good time to have an honest conversation about what they’re comfortable doing and what they may need help with. As you explore how to communicate to a person with dementia, let them lead you. Discuss how to talk to them and what methods they prefer, including text messages, phone calls, email or in person. Don’t make the mistake of excluding them from a conversation by addressing their caregiver or companion instead. Think about how you would feel if that happened to you, and speak directly to them like always. Because it takes longer for them to gather their thoughts and respond, be prepared for long pauses, and give them plenty of time to respond. Don’t interrupt or “put words in their mouth” unless they prompt you to. And, if it’s not at their expense, try to use humor to lighten the mood. Sharing smiles and laughter is good for everyone.

Middle stages:

What’s happening: It’s clear the individual is not their usual self as they become more confused and forgetful. Their short-term memory is declining, and they will have difficulty remembering recently learned information, lose track of time and space, or misplace familiar objects. They may see or hear things that aren’t there. Of all causes of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease seems to have the slowest progression and can last for many years.

What you can do: In general, family members learning how to communicate to people with dementia need to slow down and be prepared to repeat themselves or simplify words to aid understanding. When you talk to your loved one face-to-face, do so in a quiet place with few distractions. Make eye contact, and speak slowly and clearly. Only ask one question at a time, and give them plenty of time to respond. Don’t ask open-ended questions as someone with dementia will lose track of their answer. Instead, frame your question to result in a yes or no answer. For example: “Do you want chicken for dinner?” rather than “What would you like for dinner?”  

At this stage of dementia, it will be very clear that your loved one forgets they’ve told you something. They will repeat it over and over. They may make up stories to fill gaps in their memory. Family members often find this off-putting, annoying or frustrating. It’s important to be patient, resist the urge to criticize or correct, and especially avoid arguing. Try to find the meaning in what they’re saying. You’ll be more successful in getting through to them if you remain patient and reassuring. Written notes can also be helpful when spoken words seem confusing to them.

Late stages:

What’s happening: In the last stages of dementia, a person will need around-the-clock care. As their memory problems become more severe, they’ll find it harder to communicate and will experience greater changes in behavior and physical problems than before. Their movements are much slower, and they may completely lose the ability to speak. They may use nonverbal signs such as facial expressions and gestures or make expressive sounds to convey emotion.

What you can do: If you’re wondering how to communicate to people with dementia, just slow your pace. Treat them with dignity and respect, and don’t talk about them as if they’re not there. Face the person when you speak, and maintain as much eye contact as possible. You may run out of things to say, or not know what to say. It’s OK. Your presence is what’s important. Try communicating nonverbally with smiles and nods. Encourage a nonverbal response such as pointing. You can also connect with the person with sensory stimuli — sweet-smelling flowers, wonderful-tasting food, musical sounds, a caring touch. Even if they can’t tell you so, know your love and support matter a great deal to your loved one. 

We know how to communicate to people with dementia.

The speed at which dementia progresses varies widely with the person. You may feel that home is the best place for your loved one with dementia; however, as their condition changes, home is often not the safest place. Family caregivers often find that despite their best efforts, they are unable to cope with the physical and emotional exhaustion of caring for a loved one in the later stages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

When you choose our memory care program, we do everything in our power to restore the relationship you once shared with your loved one. We take on the round-the-clock tasks of caregiving, and provide customized treatments and therapies that enhance their sense of well-being, independence and dignity.  You’ll have the ideal setting and support to connect in the way that’s best for you. Learn how we can help by calling us today.