“A conversation is so much more than words: a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between words.” This quote from writer Annika Ford tells you everything you need to know about how to talk to someone with dementia. Focus on connection, and the rest will fall into place.
How to Talk to Someone with Dementia
Of all the difficulties that dementia can introduce into a relationship, trouble with communication has to be one of the most difficult. Conversations are how we relate to each other, share affection, and make sense of everyday life. If you have a loved one with dementia, you may worry that conversations will become difficult or even impossible. However, the idea that you can’t communicate with people affected by dementia is an unfortunate stereotype about aging. In fact, having someone to talk to can actually improve a person’s recall and overall brain health. It may take some extra work to get back in the groove of everyday conversations, but with a little patience, you can learn how to talk to someone with dementia.
Conversations: It’s All About Connection
It can feel a little intimidating when you’re trying to communicate with someone who is affected by dementia. What if they don’t understand, or what if you inadvertently upset them? Before you get too worried, keep in mind the purpose that conversation has in our daily lives. Conversation is an expression of connection. It shows someone you care, and you want to be a part of their lives, even when things are tough. As long as you keep that goal front and center, you’ll find your way to success.
Pay Attention to Body Language
When you’re communicating with someone who has language difficulties, it’s helpful to remember that words are only half of the conversation. Paying attention to body language, and using affirming body language of your own, can help with conversational gaps. Sit as closely as you comfortably can to your conversational partner, and be sure to use encouraging gestures like nods and smiles. Pay attention to their body language too. If they’re tired or frustrated, you’ll be able to tell.
Keep It Simple
Complex questions and difficult trains of thought can derail a conversation for someone with dementia. Keep statements simple, and allow extra time for them to respond. If it seems like they may have misunderstood, repeat and rephrase as necessary. If you aren’t sure what they said, repeat it back to them and have them confirm. Speak slowly, and be sure to leave plenty of time for the conversation to move at a pace that is comfortable for your conversational partner.
Pay Attention to What Works
Dementia affects everyone differently, so there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for communicating with someone who has it. Instead, experts recommend keeping track of what works. Does your conversation partner have an easier time in the morning than at night? Do certain prompts help, like photos or starter phrases? Talk to others who communicate with them too, and share tips and ideas as appropriate.
Lead with Empathy
If you think that communicating with someone who has dementia takes a lot of effort, imagine what it would be like to have dementia yourself. In order to feel comfortable conversing with you, your conversational partner needs to feel respected. So don’t talk down to them, or act like they can’t understand you. Keep it friendly and conversational, and encourage them to laugh with you at simple misunderstandings. The more fun and engaging your conversation is for the both of you, the happier you’ll be when you do it again.
Learning how to talk to someone with dementia isn’t as complicated as you might think. Just remember that you’re trying to connect with someone you love, and let the process fall into place.
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