Communication Matters

Interacting With Those With Dementia Requires Thoughtful Approach

Dementia has a profound effect on the brain’s ability to process information, retrieve memories, and express thoughts in words. Effective communication keeps people engaged in life, calmer, and more able to cope with the challenges of dementia. Those living with dementia are generally able to understand conversation and react, but it takes some special techniques to help them do this more easily.

Here are some tips to consider when interacting with someone showing signs of dementia:

Approach the person from the front. People with dementia often have limited peripheral vision (tunnel vision) and when approached from behind may not know you are there, or may be startled because they cannot see you. Allow the person to maintain some personal space, but put yourself in their field of vision.

Speak clearly and be patient. It can take up to 20 seconds for a person living with dementia to hear you, process what you say, think of an answer, and find the words to respond. Try to make eye contact with the person, using short, simple sentences or questions. If the person doesn’t respond, try using different words. Keep choices to a minimum, and don’t raise your voice. Conversing in a quiet place free from distractions makes it easier to focus on the hard work of processing language.

Listen closely. If the person is having trouble finding words or seems confused, look for clues to what they are trying to say. Offer encouragement, but don’t interrupt their sentence. If it seems difficult to come up with a word, suggest one. Don’t rush, but slow down to their pace, and try to work through the situation as best you can.

Pay attention to your body language. People living with dementia may have trouble understanding the words you say, but they clearly understand how you make them feel. A warm smile, eye contact, a calm voice and relaxed stance are what everyone perceives and friendly and supportive – it is an even stronger feeling for those who are struggling to express themselves.

Look for signs of distress. People living with dementia sometimes get lost, forget where they are, or can’t express a real need. Be attentive to facial expressions like searching, worry, confusion or panic. Pulling at clothing may indicate a need to find a restroom. “Rummaging” in pockets or purses might mean the person is worried about their keys, their money, or needs a tissue. Approaching the person calmly, in as quiet a space as possible, can help you determine what they need.

Watch for signs of change, and offer help accordingly. Every day can be different for people living with dementia – sometimes things can change even during the same day. Be flexible in communicating. Try a different approach, don’t force an activity even if they enjoyed it yesterday, and be alert to obvious reasons for change. The person may be tired, hungry, thirsty, too hot or too cold, not feeling well, or just exhausted from the hard work of making sense of the world around them.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to make physical spaces more manageable and safer for people living with dementia.

Editor’s note: Jeri Schaff is the executive director of the Valley Program for Aging Services.

The News-Gazette

The News-Gazette Corp.
P.O. Box 1153
Lexington, VA 24450
(540) 463-3113

Email Us

Facebook Twitter

Latest articles