Communicating effectively with older adults who have dementia

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

By Silviarita/
By Silviarita/

Caregivers and friends of people with dementia should honor the person’s abilities and ensure they have positive and meaningful interactions. Clear and simple communication can help with positive interactions. The Ohio Council for Cognitive Health suggests the following when communicating with someone with dementia:

  • Talk in a quiet spot without a lot of people around
  • Remain calm and cheerful
  • Slowly approach the person from the front and make eye contact
  • Allow for silence and take time for the person to respond instead of suggesting words for them
  • Provide direction or comfort by use of touch
  • Validate their feelings, concerns, and thoughts even though you might not agree
  • Try going with their version of the story (and focus on the emotions behind the content)—refrain from arguing, confronting, or quizzing
  • Offer options instead of asking open-ended questions
  • Use simple, clear, and direct words
  • Demonstrate what you would like the person to do and give one direction at a time

It is important to remember the person with dementia is an adult, so you should not use baby talk or childish words (e.g., use “brief” instead of “diaper”). 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. Also remember the person is not intentionally trying to annoy you. They might not be aware of their words, behaviors, or actions, so try not to take them personally.

As the disease progresses, it becomes harder for them to access long-term memory. Elaborating on a subject by phrasing things in different ways may open a different pathway for them to access ideas, knowledge, and memories. Also, smells and sensory input can help recall memories. These careful efforts can 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.

If you are a caregiver for someone with dementia, you might benefit from attending the Powerful Tools for Caregivers workshop through Michigan State University Extension. The workshop is designed to help those caring for adults with chronic conditions deal with stress, communicate effectively, and develop their own self-care plan. You can learn more about the program and sign up to be notified of the next workshop by going to the Powerful Tools for Caregivers website.

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