Communicating effectively with older adults who have dementia

How caregivers can effectively support older adults with dementia through good communication strategies.

Dementia is the progressive loss of the memory, and thinking that can affect older adults. According to Jake Harwood, PhD, Arizona Center on Aging, “People with dementia are often depersonalized, seen as less than human as a function of their age and functional impairments. As a result of low expectations, poor social environments, and poor communication, these individuals can end up with levels of disability that exceed what is attributable to their disease. The person inside is still Communicating effectively with older adults who have dementiacapable of experiencing emotions, capable of growth and new achievements. Their potential can be maximized by treating them as whole human beings, able to undertake meaningful endeavors.”

To make sure that caregivers and friends of people with dementia reduce the chances of depersonalization and unnecessary loss of quality of life, caregivers should try to honor their abilities and ensure they have positive interactions. First of all, it is vitally important to communicate information clear and simple.

Another communication strategy to help the person with dementia feel safe and calm is the use of repetition when an idea is shared for the first time. If understanding is difficult, use new phrases to describe the idea, instead of repeating the idea word-for-word. This can allow for a greater understanding if the first attempt did not work.

It is also important to check regularly for understanding as the conversation moves ahead. Michigan State University Extension says to stay away from speaking in a patronizing way, using baby talk or childlike words. Even though the person with dementia may not be able to express how disrespectful this feels, it has been shown that repeated use of baby talk or patronizing words results in less cooperation and more negative behaviors, possibly showing that this type of communication feels disrespectful.

As the disease progresses, it becomes harder to access long-term memory. Elaborating on a subject by phrasing things in different ways may open up a different pathway to access these existing ideas, knowledge and memories. Harwood emphasizes that music, smells and sensory input can help recall memories.

These careful efforts will create a safe atmosphere, reduce fear and anxiety, and support a sense of self-respect. The most important outcome will be an improved quality of life for the person challenged by the difficulties of living with dementia.

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