Dementia and Alzheimer’s are progressive illnesses that, over time, will affect a person’s ability to remember and understand basic everyday facts, such as names, dates, and places. As a result, communication with dementia patients can be challenging.

Understanding how to connect with patients and loved ones during this decline should be a top priority of caretakers. Improving your communication skills will help make caregiving less stressful and will likely improve the quality of your relationship with dementia or Alzheimer’s patients.

Focus on Direct Conversations

Before you begin a conversation with a dementia patient, find a place with few distractions—somewhere quiet, with good lighting to allow your loved one to focus solely on the conversation. Use the following conversation tactics:

  • Before speaking, make sure you have their attention: address them by name and identify yourself by name and relation.
  • State your message clearly by using simple words and sentences.
  • Speak slowly, audibly, and in a gentle tone. Refrain from raising your voice higher or louder despite any frustration you may develop.
  • If they do not understand the first time, repeat your message or question and consider rephrasing the statement.
  • Ask simple, answerable questions and attempt to use questions with answer choices, such as yes or no.
  • Avoid asking open-ended questions or giving too many answer choices.

Lastly, because dementia patients often have difficulty juggling multiple tasks or ideas, they will also likely struggle to follow a conversation with multiple threads; remain on topic and talk about one thing at a time.

Body Language and Active Listening

Remember, conversations are a form of two-way communication and listening is just as important as speaking. Be patient in waiting for your loved one’s reply. If they are struggling for an answer, it’s okay to suggest words. Acknowledge what they have said, even if it’s unclear or out of context. Acknowledge that you’ve heard them and encourage them to say more or expand on their answer.

Nonverbal cues such as eye contact and a smile can speak volumes. This helps put your loved one at ease and will facilitate understanding. Your attitude and body language may communicate your feelings and thoughts more strongly than your words. Set a positive mood by speaking to your loved one in a pleasant and respectful manner.

Physical touch such as holding hands or hugging can help the person to respond when all else fails. Further, a 2017 study suggests that positive body language and reassuring physical touch can be especially helpful if a patient becomes nonverbal in the late stages of their illness.

Have Patience

When interacting with a patient or loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s important to understand that there will be good and bad days. While the general trend of dementia sufferers is a downward decline, patients will have ups and downs just like anyone else.

Rather than let frustration get the best of you, be encouraging and respectful. Give your loved one extra time to process what you say; if you ask a question, give a moment to respond. People with dementia often feel confused, anxious, and unsure of themselves. Avoid trying to convince them they’re wrong, but instead, respond with affection and reassurance. It may also be helpful to maintain your sense of humor as several studies have shown that laughter can improve overall quality of life.

Improve Your Communication with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients

While many of the tips listed are anecdotal, there is continued research being developed to help train caregivers in their communication skills with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. The Alzheimer’s Association offers an abundance of resources including details on the progression of dementia and interacting with those affected by the illness.