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How to communicate with a person with dementia

Written by Julie Potyraj

In part two of a four-part series on caregiving and dementia, Julie Potyraj, community manager for the online master of public health at The George Washington University, explores strategies that caregivers can utilize while communicating with someone who has dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can negatively affect a person’s ability to communicate effectively, particularly during the later stages of the disease. People may begin to speak less frequently and, when they do speak, they may lose their train of thought or have difficulty organizing words in a logical way. Some people may revert back to their native language or use “made up” words to describe familiar objects.

Communicating with someone who has dementia requires skill, patience, and understanding. Below are some strategies from the Alzheimer’s Society that caregivers can employ to keep exchanges flowing smoothly.

  • Speak slowly and use simple words and sentences. This will make it easier for a person with dementia to understand what you are saying.
  • Maintain eye contact. This helps the person with dementia stay focused on you and what you’re saying.
  • Offer continual reassurance. Be comforting. Tell the individual that it’s okay to take their time in trying to explain their thoughts or emotions.
  • Avoid overcorrecting. Do not criticize or always attempt to correct what the person says. Instead, try repeating their words back to help them clarify their thoughts. Avoid arguing.
  • Encourage body language. When words are ineffective in relaying the person’s message, ask them to gesture with their hands.
  • Limit surrounding distractions. Turn off the TV or move to a quieter area before attempting to communicate or understand what the person is saying.
  • Do not stand too close. Standing too close to someone with dementia may make the person feel overwhelmed and intimidated.
  • Look for—and focus on—the emotions at play. In some cases, the feelings being expressed are more significant than the words being used. Try to identify what the person is feeling by paying attention to tone of voice and gestures.

Lastly, be aware of your own attitude and body language and how they affect the individual with dementia. Be sure to maintain a relaxed demeanor and friendly facial expressions. When you do, the person with dementia will feel more at ease.

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