The Dos and Don'ts of Speaking With A Dementia Patient

There are many difficulties inherent to the dementia disease. As a caregiver, you'll notice that your patient or loved one with dementia often gets agitated, has mood swings and struggles to communicate effectively. Dementia makes memory retention and reasoning a daily struggle. The need for communication coupled with the lack of full and proper cognitive function, as you would imagine, poses a great problem for those with dementia. It’s important that we empathize and open our eyes to how and why communication is so challenging for them, especially when they're frustrated. More importantly, you should arm yourself with the dos and don’ts of speaking with an agitated dementia patient.

caregiver speaking to dementia patient

What Not To Do:

Though Dementia robs our loved ones and patients of their minds, it doesn’t rob them of their humanity and their need to be understood and appreciated. This is key to dealing with someone who is struggling with the disease. Keep the following tips in mind:

1. Don’t Infantilize:

Dementia patients are adults who have egos, feelings and self-esteems. Though they can’t reason the way they used to, they can feel and sense condescension. That’s why it’s important to avoid speaking to them as if they are children. Don’t use elder speak—slowed speaking and simple language that resembles baby talk— as this suggests that you think of them as inferior. And no one wants to feel that way, right?

2. Don’t raise your voice:

Raising your voice indicates that you’re angry or frustrated and your patient will likely mirror this behavior. Once you start raising your voice, you start to accelerate the situation or conversation to a point that is hard to come back from. Maintain a neutral tone of voice or one that is positive and cheerful.

3. Don’t use slang or figures of speech:

To process any language or words that are outside simple words or language, takes extra cognitive energy. Using slang and figures of speech only complicates communication between you and your dementia patient.

4. Don’t ignore:

Some people think that ignoring a Dementia patient might help to pacify the patient. That’s far from the truth. To ignore, is to disrespect them and their concerns. Also, you don’t want to speak about a dementia patient as if they’re absent. That only adds insult to injury.

5. Don’t interrogate:

Once you start asking a litany of questions, then you run the risk of overwhelming your patient. They have to do more thinking and need to activate more memory synapses to try and answer those questions. This will lead to further agitation and frustration.

6. Don’t correct:

A lot of times, what a dementia patient believes to be true is not always so. Be prepared for this. They might remember an event differently from it actually was. There's no need to correct them, they'll take offense and try to protect what they believe to be true.

What To Do:

Now that you know what to refrain from when communicating with your dementia patient, we can move on to the to-dos of effective communication. Here are 7 to-dos for speaking with an agitated dementia patient.

Create a positive mood for interaction : Use cheerful and loving body language to suggests that you care — smile, use gentle touch, use assuring words.

Remove distractions: Turn off TV/radio, close doors and windows to limit outside noise – it’s hard for dementia patients to focus, so it’s important to direct their attention to the conversation and the conversation only.

Address by name: Make the conversation more personal by addressing them by their names.

Speak clearly & concisely: Effective communication in the world of dementia means using simple language, simple words and short sentences.

Ask simple & understandable questions: Asking questions suggests that you’re interested in their concerns and opinions, but ask questions that are simple and easy to understand.

Redirect attention to good memories: Though someone with dementia can’t remember recent events, they can remember details of their distant past. Ask your patient or loved one about her first child or favorite trip, something that happened long before he was diagnosed. This will help to soothe and calm.

Have patience: empathize as much as you can and give them time to process and articulate. When you ask a question, your patient will need time to interpret and to articulate what they want to say.

An important part of dealing with someone who has Dementia is showing respect, kindness and understanding. Be empathetic, and remember that your patient doesn’t have the same cognitive and mental ability you do. Try to level the playing field as much as possible to make them feel comfortable and understood.