5 Tips for Communicating with Someone with Dementia

Written by Kiera Powell on Mon Sep 19 2022.

Occupational therapist Mary Osborne shares tips for communicating effectively with someone with dementia

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, with the Alzheimer's Association citing that 60-80% of cases of dementia is attributed to Alzheimer's disease. Dementia is not a specific disease. It's an overall term that describes a group of symptoms.

It’s important to understand effective ways to communicate, especially as dementia progresses from early to later stages. Occupational therapist Mary Osborne partnered with Carewell to share her go-to strategies for effective communication with those living with dementia.

Tip #1 Always introduce yourself.

If this is the first time you’re interacting with them, approach them slowly and tell them about yourself. Try to know a little about them, too: use their name when you address them, perhaps reference things that you know they like to do.

Tip #2 Get on the same level.

If someone is in a wheelchair, kneel down and make eye contact.

Tip #3 Give choices.

Everyone wants to feel that they have purpose and agency. This may look different throughout different stages of dementia—as it progresses, one might have to change approach. Try to use closed-ended questions such as, “Do you want pancakes or eggs?” rather than, “What do you want for breakfast?” One might also try using visual aids, like the pancake mix box or the carton of eggs—this way, the person could point to their choice as opposed to having to vocalize it.

Tip #4 Practice active listening.

This is a universal concept, no matter to whom one is speaking. Make eye contact, minimize distractions, and validate the other person’s questions by repeating the question back to them. Turn off distractions like music or TV when in conversation. Give them your full attention, even if you don’t understand what they are asking—do the best you can to use emotion in your response. Mimic their emotions, for instance if they seem concerned, mimic that emotion with your facial gestures and tone of voice and say, “Oh no, I am so sorry that happened.”

Tip #5 Use positivity.

Unless someone is in emotional distress, a positive approach is always the best approach. Talk about what we’re looking forward to that day, something they enjoy doing. When presenting clothing options, get excited about the articles of clothing. A little positivity goes a long way.

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