Ways to Communicate with People Who Have Dementia

*We reached out to the Pacific Neuro-Science Institute for an update on Alzheimer’s dementia. This feature has been printed in monthly segments. This is the third installment:

What are some tips to provide support and help keep communication open? When supporting people with cognitive impairment, it can be helpful to remember that memory problems, personality changes, and other functional limitations are not intentional. A little patience can go a long way and, when it comes to dementia, we could all use a little more empathy.

An empathic approach – underlying much of the art and science of communicating effectively with people with dementia – starts with attempting to see things through someone else’s eyes, even when things may be a bit distorted from our own reality.

While hearing the same story, repeated questions, and other things stemming from short-term memory loss can be extremely frustrating, such resources encourage us to exercise patience while managing our expectations. Such guides might suggest avoiding arguing, confronting, reminding someone they’ve forgotten, or otherwise trying to “prove” a point through reason.

There are many strategies that can be helpful to help navigate life with memory loss. Again, this need not be used to “confront” one’s reality, but rather as helpful and supportive aids or even “reminiscence therapy.” There are valuable tip sheets and other resources available through local advocacy groups and online. These often include strategies for direct communication with someone who has dementia. Here are just a few:

• Look into their eyes and lean in gently to express interest and generate some focus.

• Always be sure to get their attention, since they may not recognize you.

• Keep questions simple and only ask one at a time; yes or no questions are best.

• If they become anxious or stressed, redirect their attention by asking a question or pointing at something to distract them.

• Keep your mood positive.

And again: The most important gift you can give to a person with dementia is patience and management of your frustrations when you are with them.

(Thanks to Dr. Monika White for her assistance in putting this series together for our publication.)

By Dr. Scott Kaiser and Mihae Kim, AGNP-BC

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