A man living with dementia talking to a man without dementia

How to talk to somebody living with dementia

Conversation can be harder for people living with dementia, and how we communicate is a vital part of living well. If you’re not sure of what to say or how to say it, read our tips for healthy communication.

Dementia is caused by diseases in the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which can make it harder for a person to communicate. This can be frustrating or upsetting for both the person and those around them.

Some people living with dementia may go off topic or become quieter over time. There can be several reasons for this, for example, a shortened attention span or lack of confidence. But conversation takes two, and sometimes others find it difficult to know how to interact with somebody living with dementia.

‘When talking to someone with dementia you need to be calm, friendly and patient and give the person with dementia time to give answers back […] If they forget something, just move on and keep talking! It’s nice to talk and it helps us know we still matter.’

- Amanda, who is living with dementia

A woman with dementia smiling

7 conversation starters when talking to somebody with dementia

1. Talk about their interests

Dementia may have an impact on how a person talks, but they are still the same person you knew before. Most people enjoy talking about the things they love, so think about what they were interested in before they had dementia. Were they a music lover or football fan? Maybe they would spend hours in the kitchen or out in the garden? Whatever kept them occupied before their diagnosis is probably a good place to start. 

If it’s something that the person can no longer do because of dementia, try to focus on happy memories, or something they can still do instead. For example, instead of asking what a person has cooked recently, you could talk about a favourite meal that you remember them making.

2. Talk about the past

While recent memories can be harder for somebody with dementia, many people hold on to older memories for much longer. Remembering things from the past can be comforting and reassuring for some people, so try asking some questions about the person’s life before dementia. You might ask about what they did for work, for instance, or talk about a holiday or special occasion such as a wedding.

You may be surprised what they can remember, and you may even learn something that you didn’t know before.

3. Talk about dementia

Sometimes dementia is the elephant in the room, so talking about it can be helpful. Having a conversation about dementia can help a person share what they’re experiencing, which can also help you to support them better. 

Remember, people respond to a dementia diagnosis in different ways, so use your judgement and respond to any emotions that come up. For some people it can be a great relief to talk about their symptoms and how they’re feeling, others may prefer a distraction. You might start with a simple ‘How are you feeling today?’ and take it from there.

‘When people don’t talk to me, because of my dementia, it makes me feel invisible. I love it when people ask me questions about dementia because I feel included. It makes me feel like people care.’

- John, who is living with dementia

John, who lives with dementia

Read John's story in full

4. Talk about the present

If it is frustrating for the person with dementia to be reminded of their memory problems, why not talk about what’s happening in the present? It might be something as simple as the weather, what the person is wearing or whatever is happening in the here and now. Recent memories can be especially difficult to recall, so instead of asking what a person did yesterday, focus on what they would like to do today instead.

5. Talk about photos, objects and activities

If a person is having difficulty engaging with a subject, sometimes a prompt or photograph can help. Old photo albums or sentimental objects are particularly useful for jogging a person’s memory, while some people even create memory boxes or life history books.

As well as using prompts to explore the past, objects and activities can be a good way to communicate in the present. Playing a simple card game or doing a puzzle, for instance, can be a good way to communicate over a shared experience. In the later stages of dementia, people may respond more to things that stimulate their senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste), than to words.

6. Include the person in group conversations

A person with dementia may not be able to participate in group conversations as they used to, but it can be hurtful to be excluded or spoken about. Try to include the person in conversations and group activities wherever possible, or have your conversation somewhere else if it’s not appropriate. 

Group conversations can be a stimulating social activity for a person with dementia if the environment is right. If they begin to withdraw, remember to include them again and try to be mindful of the challenges someone with dementia might be facing. It’s best to talk slowly and one person at a time.

7. Communicate without words

In the later stages of dementia, communicating through speech may be increasingly difficult. Some people may start talking lots but their words don’t seem to make sense. In this case, try to identify either what the person is trying to say or the feelings that they are trying to get across and respond to these.

It’s good to remember that non-verbal communication can be just as meaningful too. If a person can no longer express themselves through words, then communicating with gestures, facial expressions and, if appropriate, physical contact (such as holding hands) can be a great source of comfort. 

Read our guide to communicating and language for more advice and tips.

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My wife will not except I have dementia all she does is shout at me and make me unhappy. I don’t know how long I can put up with it.i know I don’t speak a lot thats the way I am.i am told to go and see my friends who all work so i stay in all week and I will go see my friends when I get home it’s have you been drinking and your drunk when l am not.im sad as all she won’t me to do is set here on my own. I don’t need this what can I do.

Hi Peter.

I am sorry to read of how difficult your situation is at the moment and I am sorry to hear how sad this is making you feel. I can hear that one of the difficulty is that your wife does not accept you have dementia. It sounds as if you are being misunderstood and I can recognise why this would make you feel so sad.

We can help talk this through with you and help support you and try to find some solutions for you so you don’t have to be alone in this. If you call our helpline one of our advisers would be glad to help you.

Our Helpline is open Monday to Wednesday (9am-8pm), Thursday to Friday (9am–5pm) and Saturday to Sunday (10am-4pm), and can be reached on 0300 222 11 22.
If you prefer, we also have a live on line advice service.

Live Online Advice
Monday to Friday (9am–12pm)
Monday evening (6pm-8pm)
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/national-dementia-helpline/li…

Please do contact us again Peter so we can help support you more.
Kind Regards
Helpline Adviser.

Thank you so much for the really helpful information on your website. The tips on knowing what to say and what not to say ar particularly relevant.

I think these are very great suggestions for early diagnosed dementia, however, I think in later stages of dementia, it’s much harder to talk to someone. Or at least this is my experience with my mother. She talks of amputations to her arms and legs, eyes being pulled out of her head, people drowning, very disturbing things. Distraction doesn’t help like it use to and so her old friends as well as myself, her caregiver, find it extremely difficult to communicate.

I live in a care home and enjoy visiting our Dementia unit. Beginning to recognise different personalities. Most of the time I have got to know varied types of Dementia. I feel satisfied that I have achieved something in my life. I enjoy your literature.
Thank you

How do I get a dementia friend to come to my mum?.
I do what I can but I still have to go to work however mum gets lonely.

Hello Sandra
If you contact your local Alzheimer's Society, you should be able to get contact details from the website. They usually have a side by side worker, which is a carefully vetted volunteer. They usually visit people or go out somewhere the person wants to go to. Or you could ask for a dementia navigator who can visit you and your mum to assess what you need and help you to access things that you want or need. The navigator also works for The Alzheimer's Society
Hope this helps
Marie

My wife cannot walk or talk now after 12 years of an Alz' diagnosis. Cared for at home but very notable that nearly all visitors of prior years have ceased. The only regulars are carers and a very few firm friends who don't feel uncomfortable "not speaking".

My mother lives alone but I have noticed even though it is early stages people who were her friends are staying away.
It also happened to my father after the stroke which ended his clear speech.
This is in rural Ireland where they
lived all their lives in these communities .
It's was so lonely for my mother who cared for him, and now it's lonely again.
Her daughters are her life line.

THE most important thing is to go with THEIR REALITY! Do NOT correct them! I'm on a bus on my iPhone and typing is a pain, so email me if you want to discuss this. I have been waiting YEARS for you to stop waffling and give this simple advice!!!!

I have heard this very good advice before and can see where it may be useful. But what if your loved one's reality is that everyone's out to get her and her husband of 60+ years doesn't love her?

Don't give up, there will be reasons causing these feelings. Try to get some support for YOU too x

My husband was never much of a.conversationlist. he loved reading. Suduco and crosswords. He can't now do any of these. He's never been into DIY or gardens. I do try to involve him in the garden and household tasks. His long term memory is nearly as poor as his short term. So a lot of these suggestions don't work. Luckily he goes to some clubs which gives me a little breathing space.

Hi All, I’m struggling to have a conversation with my mother who has vascular dementia, she is struggling to understand what I am saying to her, any advice or tips to make it easier for her? We are falling out more and more because of this :-/ also any group in Ashford area? Much Appreciated.

Hi Anastasia,

Sorry to hear that conversation is difficult with your mother.

Have you seen our factsheet on communicating and language? It's full of advice and tips that you may find useful: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/symptoms-and-diagnosis/sym…

In terms of Ashford groups, the best thing to do is put your postcode into our Dementia Directory to see what's available in your local area: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/find-support-near-you

I hope this is helpful. Remember, if you need any information, advice and support you can always call our helpline on 0300 222 11 22. Details and opening hours are here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/national-dementia-helpline
Best wishes,
--
Alzheimer's Society blog team

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