As dementia progresses, it can be incredibly painful to watch a loved one experience its grip. Communicating with your loved one may become more difficult – something that once seemed as easy as breathing, now can be filled with complexity, as though you were walking on eggshells.
What you thought had been harmless forgetfulness may now be impacting your loved one’s individuality, and that can be frightening and frustrating for both your loved one and caregivers alike. However, being able to connect and communicate with your loved one at this time remains hugely important, for both of you. But that gives way to this question; how do you communicate with someone who has dementia in a positive, reassuring way?
Read on to discover ten ways in which you can better communicate with a loved one who has dementia at any stage.
1. USE THEIR NAMES
One of the difficulties of progressing dementia is that sometimes your loved one may fail to recognise you – and perhaps you may feel that it’s quite difficult to break open the “shell” of the disease. Still, it’s important to use their and your name when speaking to them. For example, saying “Hi Mum (Dad/Gran/Granddad), it’s me, Lucy,” would be more preferred over saying, “Hi, it’s me – so good to see you today!” Avoiding using someone’s and your name may not help them to recognise to whom they are speaking, which can be frustrating for you both.
2. RECOGNISE THAT COMMUNICATION WILL BECOME MORE OF A CHALLENGE
Dementia is a disease that gets worse as time goes on. Gradually, communication will become more difficult and understanding conversations will become harder as well. However, it’s important not to make assumptions about your loved one’s communication skills because of their dementia diagnosis. When speaking to your loved one, try to avoid distractions; loud music, television turned on and large numbers of people in the room can be quite overwhelming – without distractions like these, it will allow your loved one to focus their energy on your conversation.
3. ONE THING AT A TIME
Like distractions – trying to cover too many topics in a short time may make any conversation you have difficult for your loved one with dementia to follow. An easy way to communicate with someone with dementia is to simplify your conversations – one topic at a time, use words that are easy to recognise and speak in a slow, gentle tone. Your loved one will definitely appreciate your efforts to better be able to communicate with them.
4. SPEAK IN A GENTLE TONE
When speaking to your loved one, consider your tone of voice. Try not to infantilise them by using a “cooing” tone or “baby talk”, but also be aware that your volume can be intimidating. Loud voices may frighten your loved one, even if they are comfortable in your presence.
Try using a normal, gentle tone when communicating with those who have dementia. If your loved one has a hearing problem, before you increase your tone – perhaps try speaking in a lower register. Increase your volume only when you have tried lowering your register and you know that they have a hearing problem – just make sure that your body language and facial expressions still are making your loved one feel comfortable.
5. DON’T USE FIGURES OF SPEECH
Figures of speech can be difficult to understand for your loved one with dementia. Whilst they can be fun communication tactics; imagine if it were a figure of speech that you were unfamiliar with – it would leave you confused rather than further explaining a situation.
However, for those with dementia, using the phrase, “no use crying over spilt milk,” may result in your loved one actually looking for spilt milk rather than tracking your conversation.
6. SMILE AND MAKE EYE CONTACT AT THEIR LEVEL
It can feel intimidating to someone with dementia if you speak whilst looking down at them. In order to help your loved one feel more in control of a situation or a conversation, try sitting next to them or lowering yourself to their eye level. It will make the interaction feel more personal, and they feel as though they can be more open with you, facilitating a more comfortable conversation between you and your loved one.
When you smile and make eye contact with your loved one, it acts as a reassuring non-verbal communication tool – and it can reduce the uneasiness that they may be feeling. A genuine smile can work wonders, and it lets your loved one know that you are happy to be there with them.
7. TOO MANY QUESTIONS CAN FEEL LIKE AN INTERROGATION
Questions can become difficult to answer for your loved one, especially if they are struggling with finding the right words to say. Your goal when you visit your loved one should be to comfort and encourage them – and sometimes too many questions will feel like an interrogation and may be hard for them to answer, potentially resulting in your loved one becoming closed off and no longer interested in a conversation.
8. CONSIDER YOUR FACIAL EXPRESSIONS AND BODY LANGUAGE
Make sure that your facial expressions and body language match what you are saying. If you’re delivering good news, keep a warm expression! Even if your loved one may not understand what you are saying, they can still read body language – especially in the later stages of dementia. Consider your hand and arm placement, because if you appear to be ‘closed-off’ or ‘unwelcoming’, your loved one may become intimidated – even though it’s not your intention.
9. TRY ADDING GENTLE TOUCH TO YOUR CONVERSATION
Before using a gentle touch within your conversation – it’s important to know how your loved one may react. Many with dementia can become defensive if they feel that their personal space is being encroached upon, however, many may appreciate a gentle touch on their arm or holding of their hand.
Touch can be an effective way to show your loved one that you care and are there to support them. Throughout your conversation when (and if) it feels appropriate, gentle touch can be used as a very reassuring way to communicate.
10. REMEMBER THAT THEY ARE STILL YOUR LOVED ONE
Though their mind may be more closed off and it continually may become difficult to recognise you or their other loved ones, know that they are still the same person – their mind just now works in a different way. It can be scary or frustrating, however, they still rely on you for comfort and support – even if they can’t immediately recognise you as you.