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
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
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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