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Nine Tips for Communicating with Someone with Dementia

For a family caregiver, keeping up with – let alone understanding — a relative’s behavior changes can be frustrating and confusing. But caregivers can be part of the problem, by fighting against their relative’s dementia, or they can be part of the solution, by working withtheir relative’s changing self.

In her book, Coping with Behavior Change in Dementia: A Family Caregiver’s Guide, dementia specialist Laurie White offers communication strategies to help caregivers become part of the solution and make life easier for all involved.

I recently interviewed Laurie about her book, and I came away with some valuable tips worth sharing:

  1. Recognize that people with dementia have the same needs we do. Those basic needs are to be loved, to feel productive, to feel a sense of belonging, and to be comfortable.
  2. Don’t label people by their symptoms. We all want to be acknowledged as who we are, not by a symptom we have, whether it’s arthritis, diabetes, or dementia. For instance, instead of calling people who wander “Wanderers,” we can describe them as someone who might pace or walk away or need exercise. “This can really change our attitude toward the person with dementia,” Laurie said.
  3. Let go of the need to be right. Family members, especially spouses, tend to fall into back-and-forth banter patterns: “When we took our European trip five years ago …” “No, we didn’t take that trip five years ago; we took it eight years ago.” This doesn’t work with someone with memory loss. And the bottom line is: does it really make any difference? No. Let it go.
  4. Include them. Include our loved one in our conversations. Think of it as talking with our relative, not talking to our relative. Sometimes they confabulate, that is, make up facts or stories, because they want to be a part of the conversation. Resist the urge to say, “No Mom, that’s not right.” Again, is it really important if the facts are straight?
  5. Acknowledge. Even when we don’t understand what someone is saying, we can say something as simple as, “That’s interesting,” “Thanks for sharing that with me,” or “I didn’t know that.” It all comes back to the human need to be acknowledged.
  6. Remember they forget.In our everyday conversation, we might say, “Do you remember when …” and “Do you remember that person …” For someone with memory loss, that’s not the best way to start a conversation, because chances are they don’t remember.

    Also, a person’s long-term memory stays with them much longer than the short term. Our earliest memories stay with us the longest. So instead of asking, “Did you like the movie you saw last week?” we might ask about a childhood friend.

    Instead of asking open-ended questions like, “Hey, Mom, who is this in the picture?” we can prompt them with, “Isn’t this a picture of you?” This way we are not calling upon the person to remember. We are providing some details up front.

  7. Don’t argue. Even if your mom says that vase of flowers is an accordion, don’t argue. “I’ve never won an argument with someone with dementia,” Laurie said, “because if that’s their reality – if that’s what they firmly believe and it’s not a safety threat — then is it really worth arguing about?” No. Just go with it.”
  8. Apologize. If we or someone else does something that upsets the loved one, we can acknowledge that they are upset, and apologize even if it wasn’t our fault. Just saying, “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way,” and maybe staying with them, stroking their arm, or walking with them might help defuse the situation.
  9. Seek Support. Most of us didn’t train to become caregivers; we were thrown into the role. That’s why it’s crucial we connect with other caregivers and professionals to learn what we can do now and how we can prepare for the future as our loved one’s dementia progresses. We need a support group. Our well-being and that of our loved one depend on it.

For information on Laurie’s book, click here.

To listen to my Aging Boomers interview with Laurie, click here.

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Nine Tips for Communicating with Someone with Dementia