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7 Ways to Communicate With Someone Who Has Dementia, Experts Say

These tips can lessen frustration and foster connection.

If you've ever cared for, or even just visited with, a loved one who suffers from dementia, then you know how challenging it can be to communicate. "Dementia affects not only the person suffering from dementia, but also their families," says Jung-Ah Lee, PhD, RN, an associate professor at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, University of California, Irvine. "In particular, the primary family caregiver of a dementia patient experiences a sense of social isolation, high mental stress, and often depression." She tells Best Life that is important for family members to take the time to learn how to better communicate with their loved one living with dementia, and to also look into community resources, such as respite care, skill-building classes, and support groups.

On that note, we asked experts for their best tips on communicating effectively with a person who has dementia. Read on to find out how you can foster a closer connection with your loved one while easing any frustration that may arise.

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How to Communicate With Someone Who Has Dementia

1. Limit distractions.

Grown up daughter holding hands of middle aged mother relatives female sitting look at each other having heart-to-heart talk, understanding support care and love of diverse generations women concept
fizkes / Shutterstock

If you need to have a serious conversation with someone who suffers from dementia, do it in a quiet place, says Valarie Drown, MS, LMHC, and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Caregiver Support Initiative.

"Be aware of your surroundings when you need to communicate about something that is important," she tells Best Life. "Things like the television, children running around, and music can all be distracting, which makes processing information a challenge. Limiting distractions allows the individual with dementia the greatest advantage to understanding what you are trying to communicate."

2. Keep the "three C's" in mind.

Health visitor talking to a senior woman during home visit
pikselstock / Shutterstock

Having a game plan for your visit with a dementia patient can help make the experience more meaningful for everyone—and Jennifer Prescott, RN, MSN, the founder of Blue Water Homecare and Hospice, has one that's proven effective in her work. She says it's important to be calm, concise, and clear—the "three C's"—when communicating with someone who has dementia.

"As hearing and cognitive skills often diminish later in life, making a conscious and consistent effort to speak in a calm, concise, and clear manner will prove helpful in any conversation,"  she explains.

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3. Slow down.

older couple sitting on couch

In our fast-paced world, it can be tempting to try and rush conversations—but when speaking with someone who has dementia, this can backfire. "Word finding can become very difficult for individuals with dementia," Drown says. "As a caregiver, try not to fill in the blanks. Instead, give the individual time to come up with the word or words that he/she is trying to say. It is difficult to come up with the correct misplaced word if someone is distracting them with random words that they may or may not be trying to say."

Adria Thompson, a speech language pathologist and owner of Be Light Care Consulting, says caregivers and loved ones should slow down their own speech, as well. "People with dementia may have difficulty processing information quickly," she tells Best Life. "Give them plenty of time to process what you are saying by allowing moments of silence. This often feels uncomfortable, but it's necessary! It's been studied that some people with dementia require up to 90 seconds to process and fully understand what they just heard. Every time you repeat yourself or rephrase something, you start the clock over."

4. Show, don't tell.

Young carer walking with the elderly woman in the park
Bencemor / Shutterstock

If you're trying to get your loved one to do something specific, it may work better to show them what they need to do, rather than simply telling them, says Peter Ross, founder and CEO of Senior Helpers, one of the nation's largest providers of in-home senior care.

"Show them what you want, vs. telling and or giving too many directions at once," he explains. "If it is time to go out, you put your coat on first, then show them their coat, [instead of] just saying, "Time to put your coat on!"

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5. Avoid using pronouns.

Senior man with dementia

"People with dementia often experience short term memory loss. They may struggle to remember things for even 10 seconds," says Thompson. "Using pronouns like 'he,' 'she,' 'they,' or 'it' requires the person with dementia to refer back to earlier in the conversation to reference what is being referred to."

She says the key to addressing this issue is to get specific in your speech. "Use names or nouns when referring to people, objects, or things. For example, instead of saying, 'She went to the store and bought it,' say, 'Jane went to the store and bought bread.'"

6. Be respectful.

caregiver and older woman with dementia holding a flower outdoors
sasirin pamai / Shutterstock

"Remember that your loved one is not a child, despite any child-like behaviors they may revert to if living with dementia," says Prescott. "Speaking to them like an adult is always best."

Ross adds that, for adult children dealing with a parent who has dementia, this can be particularly challenging. "Although it feels at times that the primary caregiver is being a parent to their mother or father, it is important to remember you are still their child," he emphasizes.

7. Ask about the past.

young asian adult son chatting with wheel chair bound father outdoors in park
imtmphoto / Shutterstock

One of the most difficult aspects of dementia is the loss of short-term memory. However, one silver lining is that people often retain memories from long ago, says Joan DiPaola, senior dementia care specialist at CareOne Paramus, Harmony Village.

"People living with dementia lose their short-term memory, which is often hard for loved ones to understand," she tells Best Life. "We encourage people living with dementia to discuss their life stories by focusing on their long-term memory to facilitate effective communication." So go ahead and reminisce with your loved one; getting lost in nostalgia can be a nice respite for both of you.

Elizabeth Laura Nelson
Elizabeth Laura Nelson is the Deputy Health Editor at Best Life. A mom and a marathon runner, she’s passionate about all aspects of health and wellness. Read more