Communicating with someone who lives dementia can be daunting. Their reality can be distorted; they can be fine one day and completely different the next; they can hold confusing conversations that make sense for them but none whatsoever for you.
Here is a list of advice to follow to facilitate communication:
Make sure you establish eye contact. You should also lower yourself to the person’s eye level and talk to them at a respectful distance. This is to avoid intimidating them. Keep your tone positive and friendly and don’t forget to smile.
Ask easy questions. Either give the person a simple choice – “Would you like tea or coffee?” or ask a question that requires a yes or a no answer.
Use visual aids like pictures and don’t underestimate the power of touch. Holding hands or placing an arm around someone’ shoulders can communicate a feeling as effectively as words.
Use props, like a photo album, a song or a video to spark memories.
Be patient, be calm and don’t interrupt the person. Do not try to complete their sentences and give them time to say what they want to say.
Observe, as their body language and facial expressions might communicate how they feel.
Don’t be afraid of silence. If silence makes you uncomfortable, try listening to music together.
Speak clearly, slowly and use short sentences.
Encourage them to join in conversations with others.
Don’t patronise the dementia sufferer and don’t ridicule what they say. If they go into a weird story, nod and play along. Don’t try to resonate with them as this might cause distress.
Let them speak for themselves during discussions about their welfare or health issues.
Always acknowledge the fact you’ve heard them, even if they didn’t reply to your question.
Listen actively and give your full attention to them when they speak.
Try to minimise distractions, like loud TV or radio, but always check with the person that this is ok. Don’t make decisions for them.
Refer to the person by their name and try to use names as much as possible: “Hi Gran! It’s me, John.”
Talk about one thing/subject at a time to avoid confusion.
Understand and accept that there will be good days and bad days.
Don’t ask too many questions, as this might make the person feel uncomfortable like they are being interviewed and harassed.
If the person has difficulty finding the right word or finishing a sentence, ask them to try and explain it differently.
If they are sad, let them express their feelings. Listening is as important as anything else!
If you would like to understand a bit more about what living with dementia feels like, we advise you to read Wendy Mitchell’s book “Somebody I used to know”. Wendy has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at just 57. She has put many mechanisms in place to retain her independence for as long as possible. Her optimism and resourcefulness are exemplary!
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