Every 3 seconds, someone in the world is diagnosed with dementia. Here in the U.S., nearly 6 million adults have Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia – with that number expected to increase to 14 million by 2050. These stats indicate that you probably know someone who is suffering from dementia. And if you do, you can probably attest to one of the more common problems associated with the disease: communication.
Communicating with a loved one who has dementia can be frustrating for both you and them, especially if you are trying to elicit important information or attempting to help them with their own care. The stress that can result from failed communication attempts can easily carry over from that one situation into the rest of the day, week, or even longer. Stress can actually hasten the progression of the condition, so it’s crucial to learn how best to communicate in order to keep you, your loved one, and the environment as stress-free as possible. The first step to better communication is understanding some basics of how communication works and what causes dementia.
What causes dementia and how does it affect communication?
While for healthy individuals the idea of having a conversation seems like a simple process, behind the scenes it takes multiple parts of the brain working together to make it happen. There are five elements that go into communication: the sender, the message, the channel, the receiver, and feedback. All of these elements must be working properly to have a successful interaction. In other words, it takes a tremendous amount of brainpower to communicate!
The Alzheimer’s Association characterizes dementia as damage to brain cells. Furthermore, “this damage interferes with the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. When brain cells cannot communicate normally, thinking, behavior, and feelings can be affected. The brain has many distinct regions, each of which is responsible for different functions (for example, memory, judgment, and movement). When cells in a particular region are damaged, that region cannot carry out its functions normally.”
When it comes to the brain cell damage experienced by those with dementia, any of one of those five communication elements can be affected. The person with dementia may not understand the message (receptive language), they may understand but not be able to provide feedback (expressive language), and at later stages, it’s possible they may not even recognize the sender. It’s worth noting that dementia is a progressive disease, and communication abilities change as the person goes through each stage
The good news is that while successful communication can be a challenge, it’s not a lost cause. There are many strategies you can implement to improve the way you interact with your loved one.
Tips for communicating with someone who has dementia
First, it’s important to set the scene and give some thought to your approach. Unlike most of your everyday interactions, it will take some effort to create an environment that provides the best opportunity for a productive conversation. Here a couple of easy guidelines to follow:
- Minimize environmental distractions like noise or anything else that could steal focus from the conversation
- Approach the person from the front and if needed, identify yourself so as not to startle or confuse them
Your demeanor can also impact the success of the interaction. People with dementia often mirror your mood – good or bad. As you start the conversation, keep these tips in mind:
- Try to stay calm and positive
- Keep your voice low and unhurried
How you ask questions and respond to them will likely need to be adjusted when you are trying to communicate with someone who has dementia.
Try implementing the following practices:
- Allow more time for response and the conversation in general (it can take up to one minute for someone who has dementia to process each sentence)
- Stay present in the conversation – make eye contact and nod while they speak
- Listen closely and don’t interrupt
- Remain polite and respectful even if they are getting agitated
- Clarify your understanding by repeating back what you heard
- Keep it simple by asking yes or no questions one at a time and limiting choices (e.g. instead of asking what they want for dinner, asking if they want pasta)
- Don’t talk in terms of time, as they may not be processing time correctly
- Offer praise throughout the conversation and keep it positive
It’s likely you will hit some speedbumps along the way. They may not understand what you’re saying, or you may not understand what they are trying to tell you.
Here are a few strategies to minimize stress when communicating with someone who has dementia:
- Acknowledge their frustrations and do your best to avoid correcting or criticizing
- Give permission to take a break when things aren’t going smoothly
- Try not to argue or defend yourself – it only escalates the situation
- Be demonstrative and use non-verbal communication – describe everything as you are doing it, step by step if it’s applicable
- If you’re not understanding what they are trying to say, take a guess
There are many ways you can facilitate better communication with your loved one who is suffering from dementia but bear in mind that you may need to tailor your approach depending on the stage of the disease.
You may not always get it right, and there will still be some frustrations, sadness, and a myriad of other emotions as you help your loved one navigate this condition. But approaching the situation with empathy and patience will go a long way.
Do you have a loved one suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s? What tips or tricks have helped you better communicate? Let us know in the comments!
- The relationship between stress and Alzheimer’s disease – Neurobiology of Stress
- What is dementia? – Alzheimer’s Association
- Alzheimer’s Disease Facts & Figures – BrightFocus Foundation
- Sequoia Senior Solutions Dementia Training Program