Maintaining Meaningful Connections and Communication With a Loved One With Dementia

A woman, a grandchild, and a grandmother sit on couch and look at photos together

Dementia is a broad term for a progressive decline in cognitive function that affects an individual’s memory, thinking and social abilities. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, (or simply, Alzheimer’s), which affects more than six million seniors in the United States.

Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s can be challenging. In the initial stages, conversation may seem relatively normal, sporadically disrupted by a forgotten word or a skipped thought due to memory loss. Mid-stage shifts can be more dramatic, with confusion and social withdrawal impacting a person’s experience of and interaction with the world. Late-stage dementia can render verbal communication almost nonexistent.

If someone close to you is living with dementia, utilizing the following tips can help you break down the barriers to communication and connect with your family member or friend.

Tip 1: Be clear and direct.

People with dementia may find even the simplest of questions or instructions overwhelming, which can cause confusion and frustration. The best way to avoid potential miscommunication is to be as straightforward as possible. Choose direct language and steer clear of word play or metaphors.

Avoid open-ended questions and provide step-by-step instructions.

Yes or no questions are the best way to get through to someone with dementia. Instead of asking, “What would you like to eat?” you could ask, “Are you hungry?” or, “Would you like a sandwich?”

Additionally, lengthy requests can be difficult for those with dementia to follow, so it’s best to break it down step by step. For example, instead of asking your loved one to join you for a walk, start by asking them to stand up, and then ask them to grab their shoes, and so on and so forth.

Speak slowly and clearly.

Fully annunciating your words and speaking slowly increases your chances of being understood, especially when talking to someone with dementia over the phone.

Tip 2: Know the Right Topics.

Knowing what to discuss with your loved one is pertinent to successfully connecting with them in the later stages of dementia.

Avoid corrections.

When someone has memory problems, they may mix up what is fact and what is in their head. When they are told they’re wrong, this can cause them to become upset and even more confused, so it’s best to not address any mistruths and instead redirect the conversation.

Dementia conversation starters

When communicating with your loved one, it’s best to shift the conversation to a positive topic whenever possible to avoid any possible distress. For example, you could discuss their favorite things, like food, music and hobbies, or bring up a fond memory from the past you both share.

Tip 3: Utilize nonverbal communication.

By the last stage of dementia, many people cease communicating verbally altogether, but there are still ways to effectively connect.

Use body language.

Physical gestures are a great way to get messages across with your loved one. For example, if they are struggling to communicate a request, you can ask them to point to the object or item they’re referring to.

Embrace the silence.

Your presence alone is often enough to bond with your loved one. Simply being there and spending time with them shows that you care, even if they’re not able to use words to express it.

Making Heartfelt Connections each day

At Friendship Village Tempe, we know that personal connection is vital for someone with dementia. Hopefully, these tips provide helpful information on dementia and communication strategies you can use when connecting with your loved one.  

If you’re researching options for a loved one’s care, our Heartfelt CONNECTIONS program is a great way to start. Visit our Memory Care page to learn more about our award-winning, resident-centered care for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.