Talking with People Who Are
Living with Dementia

Father and Daughter Memories

Around 55 million people worldwide are living with dementia, according to the World Health Organization. Many of us know someone who either has some form of dementia or cares for someone who has it.

A good friend who lives in an assisted care community suggested I cover the topic of speaking with someone who has a memory disease. She finds that persons living with dementia are sometimes disregarded, perhaps because, as one person explained to her, “They’ll forget anyway.”

Back to Basics

My friend offered these polite tips for communicating with a memory-challenged person, and they happen to be at the core of every good communication.

  • Maintain eye contact and sit as close as possible without invading the person’s space.
  • Wear your smile along with a relaxed facial expression.
  • Be patient and let the person finish their thought. If they falter, interrupt only to say, “And you were telling me about …”
  • If someone forgets where they are or that their loved one is gone, go along by saying something like
    “Mom, when Dad was alive you used to tease him about his jokes. You always said that he made the silliest jokes.”
    “Jackie, last week you told me there are several good things about living here. Let’s see, what did you say that happens here that makes you smile?”

Principles of Kindness for Someone Living with Dementia

Cognitive and memory illnesses are most often chronic and progressive, so those who have them are aware of the challenges they are experiencing. This knowledge creates anxiety and many times social withdrawal as well.

When spending time with someone who has this type of disease, or even meeting them when out and about, the key is to be kind and to do your best to meet them where they are.

  • Always speak in a respectful tone of voice.  People with dementia often are uncomfortable as they experience stress within their forgetfulness.
  • Anticipate the repeating or revisiting of questions or thoughts.  Try bringing up the subject or question that you already know will be posed.
    “Grandma, tell me again about when you were little and used to teach school.”
    “What is your favorite question to ask me when I visit you?”
  • Listen and be present and available.  Letting a loved one know you are there by validating that you want to hear and understand what they are saying.
    “Grandpa, I am here and am ready for a hug anytime you like. Tell me more about what you’ve been thinking.”
  • Acknowledge emotions.  When someone is losing a sense of their ability to express thoughts and memories, they may become upset and even angry.  If an unreasonable demand is made, focus on the feeling.
    “Jonny, I hear you saying you don’t want to live here. It must be very frustrating to wake up and not know where you are.”
  • Divert with positivity.  “Dad, I understand that you are sad. I get sad when you are sad.  Let’s head down to the community room and you can show me the week’s activity calendar and we can go through those together.”

Arguing with or correcting a person with dementia is off limits. “Yes, Mary, I understand you feel that way,” is a good way to offset a challenging moment. Those of us on the other side can remind ourselves that for someone living with dementia, thirty years ago may be closer than thirty minutes ago.

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