Communicating with someone with memory loss
Get tips and advice on how to communicate with someone experiencing memory loss.
Memory loss and dementia
Forgetting recent conversations or events
People with memory problems will find it hard to store, and then remember, recent conversations and events. The part of the brain (the hippocampus) that allows new information to be processed may be damaged. This makes it harder for the person to form new memories and learn new information. The person may forget a conversation they’ve had, something they’ve recently done, or an appointment or plan. It is important to remember that the person isn’t being difficult or ignoring you. Their brain hasn’t kept the information, and so it may feel like the first time they’ve heard it. The following tips may help.
- Avoid telling the person they have heard the information before.
- Ask yourself whether it really matters if the person remembers a recent conversation or event. Forcing the matter can makes things worse.
- Set up a regular routine. This can make it easier for the person to remember what is going to happen during the day.
- Encourage them to use a diary or journal to record things that have happened. Pictures and words are useful tools. They can be used to remind the person what they have done, as a conversation starter.
- Include cues and prompts, and try to give context, instead of asking vague questions. For example, ‘It must be a while since breakfast. Are you hungry?’ rather than ‘Have you had breakfast?’
- Consider using reminders such as sticky notes or a wall calendar for one-off tasks, and more permanent reminders for tasks the person does more often (such as keeping a note by the door to remember keys and wallet).
- Consider assistive technology devices, such as an automatic calendar clock, to help the person remember important things.
- Focus on one thing at a time: giving the person too much information may be overwhelming.
- Keep information simple, and repeat it often (if necessary).
- Reduce distractions such as background noise.
- Keep questions simple and specific, for example‘Do you want tea or coffee?’ rather than, ‘What would you like to drink?’ This helps the person to make a choice by narrowing down options.
Struggling to find the right word
People with dementia may have difficulties finding the right word in a conversation. They may also struggle with remembering names of items or people. They may:
- struggle to find the right word in a conversation (for example saying shoe instead of chair) or seem stuck because the word is ‘on the tip of their tongue’
- struggle to remember the meaning of words
- forget people’s names even if they know them well
- forget the names of objects (such as knife, book, tree).
These difficulties can make it harder to communicate with a person with dementia. However, there are a number of ways to support conversation.
- Give the person enough time to find the word, but try not to leave it so long that the person becomes embarrassed.
- Consider the context of what the person is saying – this may give clues to the word they are trying to find.
- Turn down background noise and try to make sure the environment is not too distracting.
- Consider the time of day when the person is at their best. This may be in the morning when they have more energy.
- Don’t rush the person. If they feel stressed or under pressure it may make things worse. Be patient and don’t complete the sentence for them.
Tips: supporting a person with dementia when they forget the names of objects and people
- Try to find tactful ways to give the person reminders or prompts (for example ‘Here’s our neighbour, Bill’).
- Try not to put the person on the spot or say things that highlight they have forgotten the person’s name (such as ‘You must remember who this is?’).
- It’s much harder for the person to remember names if they’re tired or stressed. Try to wait until they’re feeling a bit better.
- Ask the person whether it would be helpful for other people to introduce themselves when they speak to them. This may depend on how the person feels about their difficulties and whether they are happy for others to know.
- Use prompts, cues and context to help with naming items. The person may recognise something and what it is used for, even if they can’t remember its name.
- Consider using a ‘memory book’ or ‘memory box’ with photos and brief information on people (such as their name or relationship) for the person with dementia to refer to.
- Try not to visit places that are too busy, such as markets – the person may cope better in situations with fewer people.
Communicating with someone with dementia
Find out more about how to communicate with somebody who has dementia.