Compassion is key in communicating with dementia patients. How we communicate with a person living with dementia can have a positive effect and it can have a negative effect. As a matter of fact, their mood can change on a dime based on how we interact with them.
Below are 12 ways to communicate compassionately:
1. Pay attention to your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 55% of communication is our body language, 38% is our tone of voice, and 7% is verbal (words), which means our body language is more significant and more important than our words. Observing our body language is one of the ways your loved one with dementia is trying to make sense of the world around them. And it’s how they compensate for what they can’t process.
2. Replace saying “you” with “we” and “us”.
For example, instead of saying it’s time for “you” to do such and such, say it’s time for “us” to do such and such. When we say “we” or “us,” it increases cooperation. When we say “you,” it increases the chances of them saying “no,” and it can make them get defensive. Whereas, saying “we” or “us” gets processed as doing something together and it’s inviting.
3. Keep your questions and answers short and simple.
The fewer the words the better. Keep your questions and answers short and to the point. Ask one question at a time. For example, when it’s time for your loved one to eat breakfast, say: “It’s time for us to eat breakfast. Do you want cereal or eggs for breakfast?” Ask the question this way instead of asking, “What would you like for breakfast?”
4. Give short, one-sentence explanations.
For example, when it’s time to take your loved one to a doctor’s appointment simply say, “It’s time to put our shoes on and go see Dr. So and So.” Say it this way instead of saying, “We need to leave in 30 minutes to go see the doctor so you need to get ready and put your shoes on so we’re not late.”
5. Try to avoid asking open-ended, run-on questions.
Open-ended or run-on questions are very difficult for people living with dementia to process and comprehend. For example, try to avoid asking questions, such as, “What do you want to eat for dinner tonight?” or “What do you want to do today?” As the disease progresses, these can become very difficult questions for them to answer.
6. Simplify the decision-making process.
Give your loved one with dementia two choices. For example, instead of asking them what they would like to wear today, ask them whether they want to wear the green or blue shirt.
7. Avoid asking your loved one “why?” or if they “remember.”
Assume your loved one with dementia isn’t going to know why they did something or remember they did it. Avoid questioning or testing their memory by asking them “why” or if they “remember.” It’s not productive or beneficial for you or for them when you ask them these questions. Learning to refrain from asking them why they did something or if they remember will conserve your energy.
8. Avoid arguing, correcting, explaining, and rationalizing.
People living with dementia have a brain disease and the disease is killing healthy brain cells; therefore, their brain isn’t functioning properly. This means your loved one is going to say and do things that don’t make sense, are incorrect, or even inappropriate or embarrassing. Arguing, correcting, explaining, and rationalizing with them is not an effective way to deal with this because it can make them frustrated and angry.
9. Put yourself in their shoes.
Think about how it might feel being on the receiving end of this line of questioning, and also think about the time and energy you’re expending on this. Ultimately, you will be the one getting exasperated.
10. Speak slowly.
It takes longer for people with dementia to process what’s being said, so give them time to process what you are saying. If you have to repeat yourself, say the exact same thing the same way. Slow down how fast you talk and annunciate your words at a slower speed. For example, if you say to your loved one “it’s time for us to go to bed” without a response, repeat the same phrase “it’s time for us to go to bed” again and then start the process of getting ready for bed. Don’t go into a lengthy explanation of why it’s time for bed and all the things they need to do before they go to bed.
11. Provide visual and verbal cues.
As your loved one loses their ability to understand your words, it helps if you provide visual cues when you are speaking to them so they can see and follow what you’re saying and doing. This is especially helpful when it comes to personal hygiene. For example, demonstrating how to brush your teeth, change clothes, get dressed, put on shoes, etc. It’s also helpful when it comes to taking medication or when you want them to do a task. Initially, you may have to demonstrate how the task is done. If your loved one has a blank stare or look on their face, it’s highly likely they don’t understand what you want them to do, and providing visual cues along with the verbal cues can be extremely helpful and beneficial.
12. Respond to your loved one’s feelings instead of focusing on the content or their words.
One of the biggest challenges for caregivers is paying attention to loved ones with dementia’s “feelings.” For example, pay attention to their tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, body language, and the “feeling” words they may use. When communicating with dementia patients, try to identify the underlying emotions or feelings they are expressing. Even if your loved one is accusing you of something. For example, your loved one may be accusing you of hiding things from them. You might respond by saying, “I’ll try to pay closer attention to where I put things so they’re easier to find.”
Communicating with dementia patients using these 12 compassionate communication tips can help make your interactions with your loved one better and easier as you navigate the ups and downs of dementia.
If you need dementia caregiver support, please join my dementia support group or schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation.
Connect with Tami
Get information, guidance, and support delivered to your inbox each month.