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7 Practical Tips for Talking to Someone with Dementia

By Maryalene LaPonsie January 29, 2017 Caregiving

Growing up, it felt as though we spent most Sundays visiting my Grandma in a nursing home. Some days she would be angry and combative. Others times she appeared listless and disinterested.

She rarely remembered who I was and sometimes wasn’t even sure who my Mom – her daughter – was. She died when I was in 7th grade, and a final exam after her death confirmed she had Alzheimer’s disease.

Today, I live with my 81-year old mom who seems to be going down the same path. She confuses names, can’t recall recent events and regularly forgets how to do everyday tasks such as starting the microwave. I also have an 83-year-old aunt in assisted living who has memory loss.

As you can probably imagine, the topic of how to talk to people with dementia has been of great interest to me. I’ve spent a lot of time researching, talking to experts and, most importantly, refining my technique through trial and error with my loved ones.

Here are seven tips for talking to someone with dementia.

The Best Way to Start Talking to Someone with Dementia? Introduce Yourself

This step might not be needed for someone with early or mid-stage dementia that you see on a regular basis. However, if there is any doubt whether the person you’re visiting will recognize you, it’s best to introduce yourself and include how you know each other. However, don’t stress out too much if they continually get your name wrong even after the introduction has been made. That’s normal.

Time Your Visit Right

People experiencing dementia may have memory loss, but they still benefit from the familiarity of a routine. Having a predictable pattern to the day can be calming and reassuring. You don’t want to disrupt that routine so check with caregivers to determine the best time for a visit.

In addition, many people with Alzheimer’s disease experience what is referred to as sundowning or sundowner syndrome. It means they may become confused or agitated in the evening hours around dusk. For your sake and theirs, it may be best to avoid scheduling your visit around this time.

Have a Plan for the Kids

Expecting your children, especially young ones, to sit through a visit with an older relative may be asking too much. People with dementia often lose their filters which can make for awkward conversations around little ones. Plus, children can be distracting to your relative and may make it difficult for them to focus on you.

Instead of requiring children to spend the entire visit attentive to the conversation, bring along something to occupy their time. They may be able to watch a movie on an iPad or work on homework while you talk to your loved one.

Talk About the Past

I have found talking about the past is the best way to strike up a conversation with someone experiencing memory loss. While people with dementia may struggle to remember recent events, they often remember the past much more vividly.

While I avoid discussing current events, I may use one to segue into a question about the past. For example, I might say, “The kids had the day off school today because of the snow. Did you ever have snow days?” Sometimes these questions are dead ends, but sometimes they result in wonderful stories I’ve never heard before.

Make the Conversation Low-Pressure

Speaking of questions, I always try to word everything in a way that makes it ok if the person I’m asking doesn’t have an answer. Instead of “Why did you,” I use “Why do you think” to start questions. Using “Do you remember” also works well although I try not to use it too often. I don’t want my loved one to feel bad if she is constantly answering no.

Another way to keep the conversation going is to bring up a favorite memory you have of the past. You can bring up a couple key details and then pause to see if your loved one will fill in a few more.

Expect to Hear the Same Things Again and Again

My experience has been that those with dementia often have a few stories they like to retell or remember. I know that whenever we drive by a particular church, my aunt will tell me about the funeral with the ladies in red hats. When we go by the funeral home, I’ll hear about a conversation she had with the director.

Whenever possible, I don’t interrupt. Instead, I listen as though I’ve never heard the story before. If I absolutely can’t bear to hear it again, I might jump in with an “Oh, I think you may have mentioned this. Is this when…” and fill in the blank. But mostly, I simply listen. Letting them tell their favorite stories makes the conversation more enjoyable for both of us.

Find a Shared Activity

Another tactic to make these conversations more comfortable is to do something else at the same time you’re talking. Depending on their stage of memory loss, your loved one might enjoy working on a puzzle, playing cards or looking through photo albums.

At later stages, your loved one might be beyond the point of having conversations. In these cases, it may make more sense to watch a favorite TV show or listen to some quiet music together during your visits. Bringing a book or having another activity with you to do while sitting with your loved one is often appropriate.

Be Patient, Listen and Don’t Correct

The very best advice I can give for how to talk to someone with dementia is to be patient. Know that these conversations will not be like talking to your best friend or spouse. Don’t treat your loved one like a child but avoid bringing up complicated topics or asking pointed questions.

Above all, listen. Don’t feel the need to fill the space with your words. Let there be pauses and breaks in the conversation where your loved ones can collect their thoughts. When they make a mistake in the facts, don’t feel the need to correct them every time. Does it really make a difference if they say your sibling played basketball in middle school when it was actually you?

Don’t spend this precious time with your loved one trying to have conversations like you did in the past. Instead, go with an open mind and an open heart and meet them wherever they may be.

Do you have a loved one with dementia? How have you addressed challenges in communication? What advice would you give to your Sixty and Me sisters for talking to someone with dementia? Please share with the Sixty and Me community in the comments below.

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The Author

After 15 years of marriage, Maryalene LaPonsie lost her high school sweetheart and husband to cancer. Today, she maintains the site The Mighty Widow where she chronicles life after love and the challenges of parenting through grief When not busy raising her and her late husband’s five children, Maryalene works as a personal finance writer and is a weekly contributor to U.S. News & World Report.

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