10 Steps to Better Conversations with Dementia Sufferers

Of all the medical challenges a family caregiver can face when caring for a loved one, few can be as emotionally draining as dementia.

With the holiday season upon us and families across the country gathering to eat, talk and celebrate, we at SelectCare wanted to give families struggling with dementia some advice on how best to connect with someone experiencing the condition.

To that end, I wanted to share 10 conversation tips scoured from the pages of AgingCare.com, a family caregiver support site.  Although there is sadly no silver bullet to connecting with a loved one experiencing dementia, these tips can help you both stay on point and engage your loved one in a way that speaks past their condition.

1 – Eye Contact:  When speaking with your loved one, make sure they know you are trying to engage in conversation. Make direct eye contact while speaking, and try to always address your loved one with their preferred name.  

Dementia Sufferers_Keep the conversation going

2 – Limit Distractions:  Background noises can easily distract people with dementia and derail a conversation, not to mention frustrate the caregiver.  To avoid this, be sure televisions, radios and even noisy appliances are turned off before you start.

3 – Keep conversations one-on-one:  I personally wish I had known this tip sooner.  When visiting your loved one, try to limit conversations to one-on-one exchanges. It might seem simple to you, but keeping track of two or three other people’s names and what they have already said can make your loved one anxious and less likely to engage.

4 – Be specific:  Open ended questions and a lack of specificity can become very frustrating for people with dementia. Rather than asking “what shall we do today,” it is much less overwhelming to provide a simple yes/no question, like “would you like to go to the supermarket?”  Also, when talking about items, do not be ambiguous. Rather than asking “Would you like to buy this” and gesturing towards an item, ask “Would you like to buy this bread?” Doing so makes it much easier for your loved one to stay on point.

5 – Avoid Conflict:  Dementia and related diseases can lower people’s inhibition to say things you might consider inappropriate. Additionally, these conditions make it extremely frustrating to engage in a lengthy discussion about a contested topic.  When faced with a challenging statement or belief, it’s best for both the caregiver and loved one to let the conversation go by the wayside.

6 – Patience:  If your loved one is struggling to complete a sentence, resist the urge to finish the statement for them.  Oftentimes, a person in this situation will agree to your suggestion, even if it is not what they planned to say.  Instead, ask a question that might lead them back to their original thought. If someone is wandering around their living room looking for a remote, try to use context to piece together their desire and ask them questions related to it, like “did you want to watch television?” and work from there.

7 –  Avoid “reality checks:”  After a certain point in the progression of the disease, it’s common for people with dementia to create their own reality.  This can take many forms, from the firm belief that a long-dead spouse is out to the store, to the belief that they are a famous actor or athlete.  As long as these fantasies are not hurting anyone, don’t be afraid to engage the person.  By acting out these fantasies, you might actually find yourself connecting in a more meaningful manner. Do not try to “jerk” the person out of their perceived reality.

8 – Watch for body language:  If your loved one is losing their ability to express themselves verbally, it’s critical that you watch their face and body language for indications about how they feel.  Anything from a change in facial expression, posture or where they are looking can provide better insight into how they feel at that moment and what they need most from you.

9 – Communication takes more than words:  Dementia affects everyone differently.  Things like audio and visual cues, or even touch, can convey more meaning than words.  If you present your loved one with two choices, a sports or news show for example, showing them both options might result in a more informed answer, rather than the easier option for them to pick.

10 – Keep the conversation going:  Even if your loved one can no longer respond to you, it’s important to keep the conversation going.  Speaking directly to your loved one is a way to reassure them and show them that they still matter to you, even if they cannot reciprocate.

I hope you found these tips helpful.  The fact is, dementia is a challenging obstacle for everyone in a family, not just the person experiencing symptoms.  At SelectCare Home Care Services agency, we know firsthand how difficult it can be to stay strong while providing your loved one with the care and support they deserve.  Our staff of dedicated home caregivers has extensive experience helping families facing dementia and we stand ready to help with more than 30 years of experience.

To learn how Selectcare can help your family, call us today.