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Take a Break, Count to Five, Smile & Relax

Tips for Conversation When Someone Has Dementia

By Erin Wallace Season’s Family Support and Education Specialist

Do you struggle in conversing with a friend or family member who is living with dementia? Perhaps the conversation used to flow easily, but now it dries up quickly. Or perhaps you are trying to avoid certain subjects as you are fearful of upsetting them. Maybe because of the cognitive changes they are experiencing, they repeat themselves so frequently that now you both are caught saying the same things, answering the same questions. Perhaps they are just plain frustrated. Try these simple tips to keep a conversation going with someone who has dementia and hopefully make it more enjoyable for both of you.

Be Aware of Body Language  Try being at eye level with the person, so they can see your face, facial expressions, etc. This will help the person feel more comfortable. Smile! The person experiencing cognitive change is looking to you—the more you smile, the more they will, and the more relaxed you both will be! Be aware of the message your body language is sending. It can help the person open up, relax, and be more likely to engage in a conversation, even if they don’t remember who you are.

The person with dementia may be trying to tell you something as well, especially if they have a hard time expressing themselves verbally. Their body language may be able to tell you if they are upset, tired, worried, agitated or experiencing pain.

Slow Down  We live in a society where we talk fast, and multi-task often. Try not to complicate a conversation by asking questions that may be difficult to answer or understand. Also, try to avoid open ended questions. For example instead of asking “What would you like to drink?” try offering two choices by asking, “Would you like coffee or juice this morning?” This allows the person to feel in control, but you are also giving them enough information to respond appropriately. If the person is living with more advanced cognitive change, try using a visual cue to help them answer.

Touch  Many times words are not needed to convey a message. Touch can be a very powerful mode of communication. For example, holding the person’s hand can convey to them instantly that you are someone they can trust and that they are safe.

Try Reminiscing  Everyone enjoys a trip down memory lane! Use a photo album or picture book to help support you and keep the conversation going. Be mindful of the person’s level of cognitive loss as they may not recall some life events.

Be Patient  The conversation may not be as quick as it once was. This doesn’t mean that you should try to hurry the person through the conversation or speak for them. Encourage the person to keep talking, as this can help them to continue to engage in life around them and can assist in preserving language skills. Take a breath, count to five, smile and relax. By doing this, you are giving them time to finish what they were saying. Also, be mindful to slow down your speech. The person living with cognitive change needs more time now to process what has been said and how to respond.

Respond to the Emotion  It is important to respond to the emotion when you are speaking to someone with dementia. This is because the feelings and emotions that are being expressed can be more important and telling than what is actually being said. Keep in mind that focusing on facts, or correcting the person if they say something incorrect, is not nearly as important as how they are feeling in the moment. If they are happy, laughing, and enjoying themselves within the conversation, correcting them may change the moment.

Silence is Ok  There are times where silence is a good thing. Sitting in a peaceful silence can be comforting and relaxing to a person with dementia. We as caregivers often feel that we need to keep talking and be entertaining, when the opposite is actually true. If silence is hard on you as the caregiver, try having some light background noise. This may help you to relax too.