senior man putting shoe in microwave illustrating difficulty communicating with dementia patients

How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

Watching a parent, loved one or patient with dementia can be upsetting, especially as the disease progresses and it affects their ability to communicate successfully. Depending on what stage of dementia your parent is in, people with dementia may show forgetfulness, have trouble finding the right words when talking, and for severe cognitive decline, may need 24/7 care. Many ask how to talk to a parent with dementia because talking to a person with dementia can be challenging at times. Below we provide tips for communicating with dementia patients so you can improve your dementia communication with someone struggling from cognitive decline.

 

 

 

young woman bent over talking to elderly mom in wheelchair showing how to talk to a parent with dementia

 

How to Talk to People with Dementia

 

1. Understand dementia causes cognitive changes impacting their ability to communicate.

How does dementia affect communication? Depending on the type, whether they have Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, and the stage of dementia your parent has, your parent may have difficulty:

 

  • Understanding what some words mean.
  • With having the attention span to hold long conversations.
  • Losing their train of thought or have trouble finding the right words.
  • Showing frustration if they are not able to communicate effectively.
  • Experiencing sensitivity to loud noises, including voices.

 

 

2. Approach your parent from the front and make eye contact with them.

This way your parent sees you coming toward them, so they are not startled. Eye contact establishes trust and sincerity.

 

3. Maintain a calm tone and positive body language.

Pay attention to how loud you are speaking and the body language you are portraying. Gentle touching and hand gestures may help your parent understand what you are saying. Holding your parent’s hand while talking shows you care and are open to their concerns, even if you struggle to understand what they are saying. Smiling often at them speaks volumes without having to say a word.

 

4. Talk slowly and clearly.

Sometimes we get excited and don’t realize how fast we are talking. Your parent with dementia may not be able to comprehend everything you are saying. It is better to speak slowly, and in a calm tone. Give them time to respond, and if they don’t, repeat yourself in simpler terms.

 

5. Minimize distractions.

Background noise (like music or television) and loud noise can be stressors for those with dementia. Your parent may also have difficulty blocking out the noise. Try to maintain a calm, peaceful environment, especially when trying to talk with them.

 

 

 

 

How to Talk to People with Dementia senior woman looking at calendar making dementia communication easier

 

6. Write things down.

Writing tasks or appointments in a calendar, on a whiteboard, or in a notebook can be a helpful communication tool. Review it regularly with your parent, so they know what to expect and have time to mentally prepare.

 

7. Keep a routine.

Dementia patients tend to be more comfortable in surroundings they are familiar with and having a routine is important. It is a good idea to avoid significant changes when possible and slowly introduce new things. Try talking to your parent when they are in a calm, comfortable environment. Consider talking during a time you know they are more alert and likely to engage in conversation. For example, some patients may be more fatigued in the evening, so the morning or afternoon may be a better time for conversation.

 

8. Provide simple, specific instructions.

Instead of pointing out mistakes, redirect them with simple specific steps. For example, if they make a mistake, gently say ‘let’s do this’ or ‘please try this.’

 

9. Let them make decisions.

Try to enable them to stay involved with making decisions as much as possible, but don’t overload them. Meaning, you can limit their choices. For example, instead of asking ‘what do you want to wear today?’ you may ask, ‘would you like to wear your blue or red shirt today?’

 

 

 

 

dementia communication senior wife being sensitive to forgetful husband with hands on his head

 

10. Be sensitive when they struggle.

How to talk to a parent with dementia? Be sensitive when they are struggling to understand or when they are trying to find the right words. It may be easier to correct them or put words in their mouth. Instead, try to help them express their thoughts. In addition, understand they are having trouble communicating. You can help them find the right words, but be careful of making quick assumptions. Give them time to express themselves.

 

11. Be careful with questions when communicating with dementia patients.

Asking yes or no questions is more direct and easier than asking open-ended questions. For example, you could ask ‘are you in pain?’ rather than ‘how are you feeling?’ In addition, asking if they remember something or saying ‘don’t you remember’ may be overwhelming or can cause your parent to become agitated. Instead, you can say ‘I remember ‘ and continue with the conversation.

 

12. Watch for nonverbal communication.

When your parent has difficulty talking, they may show facial expressions or other gestures that may clue you in on what they are trying to say. In addition, you can use non-verbal communication. For example, holding up their water glass when asking if they want more water.

 

13. Don’t Argue with your parent.

Arguing usually makes the situation worse by increasing their agitation. Instead, let it go for the health of both of you. It is better not to correct your parent when they are wrong about something, such as what day or time it is. Correcting them may cause agitation and reduce their trust. Instead of focusing on the facts, it is a good idea to focus on the thought or feelings they are trying to convey.

 

14. Be patient – dementia communication can be challenging.

Their cognitive decline may cause angry outbursts, or they may have difficulty finding the right words to say. It can be very frustrating, but keep in mind it is related to dementia. When they are trying to tell you something, take the time to listen.

 

 

 

senior woman holding sand clock

 

15. Plan extra time.

When talking with your parent, realize that things will take longer. Set aside extra time, so you can be supportive and have the time to listen to them. Give them the time to find the right words or gather their thoughts.

 

16. Re-evaluate your expectations regarding dementia communication.

For many years you may have had in-depth, insightful conversations with your parent. You may be used to fun back and forth banter, but now conversation may take more focus and concentration. As your parent’s dementia progresses, you may need to re-evaluate and try a different approach with your communication.

 

17. Your parent may not recognize you.

This can be heartbreaking, but sometimes as dementia advances, it makes people forget some people while they may remember others. Although it is difficult when someone with dementia does not recognize you, do not take it personally. Remember, it is the disease. Try to remain calm when talking to your parent, and continue to talk respectfully with them.

 

18. Practice Self-Care.

Communicating and caring for a parent with dementia is challenging, and you will experience many emotions, righteously so. Take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

For more information about the importance of self care and self care tips, read our blog post: Self Care for Caregivers.

 

 

To read more about caring for someone with dementia, including information about dementia, caregiver tips and common caregiver duties,  read our blog post: Dementia Caregivers – Home Care for Dementia Patients.

 

 

 

Summary – How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

Caring for a parent with dementia may be hard at times. Implementing different approaches can make dementia communication a little easier. Keeping a calm, comfortable environment and minimizing distractions will help your parent keep focus. Talking slowly in simple terms will help your parent process what is being said. It is a good idea not to focus or argue about facts when communicating with dementia patients but instead focus on their feelings and what they are trying to convey. Understanding their dementia and its progression will help you separate the disease from your parent. Although challenging at times, remember it is dementia creating a cognitive decline affecting their memory, mood, and behavior.

 

 

 

 

References:

NIH, National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Caregiving: Changes in Communication Skills.

CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Helping Alzheimer’s Caregivers.


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