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How to Talk to a Parent With Dementia: 14 Communication Strategies and Tips

Declan Davey
Written by Declan Davey on Thu Dec 24 2020.
How to Talk to a Parent With Dementia: 14 Communication Strategies and Tips

What to Do If Dementia Symptoms Are Creating Barriers to Communication 

There’s no denying it — communication is the centerpiece of relationships.

How people bond and relate to one another all comes down to the ways in which they behave, speak, and listen.

Whether your loved one is living with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, you may have found it challenging, at times, to understand what they truly want or need. Memory problems, speech impairments, and changes to the relationship dynamic can all have an impact…

For this reason, we’ve brought together a list of  ideas on how to talk to a parent with dementia, so that you can maintain the quality of communication with your parent as much as possible.

We’ll be covering 14 strategies in total. Even if some of the tips and methods aren’t needed just yet, it can be useful to keep them in mind for the future. 

However, please feel free to skim through to those that are most relevant to you and your loved one at the moment.

Oh, and one last thing before we begin! 

If you can think of other family members or friends who could benefit from learning about dementia communication strategies, please share this article.

14 Communication Strategies and Tips on How to Talk to a Parent With Dementia

1. Set Achievable Goals

The reality is that Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia are progressive syndromes. As symptoms advance over time, it’s sensible to be prepared.

How you communicate with your loved one is likely to change as time goes by. This may feel unnatural at first if you’ve been used to communicating in a certain way with them for many decades, but it is the nature of the condition. 

Having realistic expectations can reduce the chances of disappointment or frustration. Try to set achievable goals for your conversations. Keeping them “short and sweet” is often a good place to start!

2. Don’t Ask Open-Ended Questions

Simple “yes” or “no” (or “this” or “that”) questions can reduce cognitive demand if word-finding is a problem for your parent.

This style of question can also help conversations flow and reduce the amount of time you may have to wait for a response.

A question such as “is the weather cold today?” may be easier for someone with dementia to answer than “what’s the weather like today?”  

Here are a few further examples of how this could look in practice…

Open-ended question: “How are you feeling?”

“Yes” or “no” question: “Are you feeling okay?”

Open-ended question: “What month of the year were you born in?”

“Yes” or “no” question: “Were you born in August?”

Open-ended question: “What do you fancy for lunch?”

“Yes” or “no” question: “Would you prefer a salad or soup for lunch?”

3. Reduce Background Noises

We all know that sounds like car alarms, dogs barking, and loud snoring can be super, super annoying! 

For people living with dementia, even subtle noises can present as a significant challenge. And hearing sounds coming from different directions may be overwhelming.

If you notice that your loved one seems distracted during conversations, make sure to turn off/down any background sounds like the radio or TV.

4. Be Specific

If you and your parent are in a group meeting or at a family get-together, try to avoid using words like “he,” “she,” or “they” when referring to them.

For the sake of clarity, it’s better to be specific and use your loved one’s preferred name, as they’ll be most familiar with this.

5. Supplement with Non-Verbal Cues

“A picture paints a thousand words.” 

Yep, we’ve all heard this saying before! And it’s certainly fitting for the topic of dementia communication strategies…

Certain types of dementia can affect the language centers of the brain more than others. A condition called aphasia may arise as a result of these brain changes.

For example, primary progressive aphasia (PPA) — a type of frontotemporal dementia — can cause particular difficulties with speech comprehension and production.

If your loved one sometimes struggles to understand what you’re saying, non-verbal methods such as hand gestures and facial expressions are great ways to supplement how you communicate.

6. Make Eye Contact

The golden question — what really is the ideal amount of eye contact?

Too little and you seem disinterested… Too much and the person you’re speaking to may feel uncomfortable or intimidated…

It’s certainly a hard balance to strike!

Adults make eye contact 30% to 60% of the time when talking to individuals and in groups. But studies have shown that the optimum amount of eye contact for emotional connection is more like 60% to 70%.

Greetings, farewells, and questions are a few of the most important moments to make eye contact with your loved one. 

7. Hold Hands

If you and your parent feel at ease holding hands, this can be one of the best non-verbal communication strategies to fall back on.

Not only does it take the pressure off from having to fill the silence with conversation, it can also provide a sense of security and connection. 

8. Use a Warm Tone of Voice 

“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!”

How often do we hear this feedback in the context of disagreements?

Tone-of-voice becomes an even more crucial cue for people living with dementia. 

While your parent may no longer understand words like they used to, maintaining a warm, welcoming vocal tone can help them feel safe.

9. Take Breaks

The reality is, conversations can be energy-sapping at times — for both your loved one and for you!

If it’s feasible, taking breaks every so often is a smart move.

A hot drink or a few minutes of fresh air can do wonders for both parties to refresh and release some pressure. 

10. Give One Instruction at a Time

Granted, this is sometimes easier said than done when life gets busy and you’re in a rush!

Still, giving one instruction at a time can make communication much easier. 

Multi-tasking is hard enough for adults without cognitive impairments, so you can imagine what it might be like for those living with dementia.

It may take your parent a while to get their words out, so hold back from asking further questions before they’re able to answer.

Repeating the question or rephrasing it slightly differently can help move the conversation along. 

Try to give your loved one at least 20-30 seconds to respond.

11. Stay in Front

Aside from memory problems, changes in vision and perception can be another barrier to communication with dementia.

Sitting or standing in front of your parent when you speak is a useful strategy to ensure they can see you well and know who’s talking with them.

12. Get Creative!

If “normal” conversation is becoming more difficult, it may be worthwhile to get creative and try out other communication methods, like:

  • Looking through old photos

  • Doodling or painting

  • Smelling nice scents such as lavender, cinnamon, or fresh flowers

  • Singing or humming along to songs that your parent will know

A combination of the communication strategies above can be a rewarding way to pass the time — not just for your loved one, but for you too!

13. Read “Creating Moments of Joy” by Jolene Brackey

One of the best books on dementia communication is “Creating Moments of Joy” by Jolene Brackey. 

It features a variety of uplifting stories and inspiring techniques for managing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

As Jolene puts so well herself:

“We are not able to create a perfectly wonderful day with someone who has dementia, but it is absolutely attainable to create a perfectly wonderful moment; a moment that puts a smile on their face, a twinkle in their eye, or triggers a memory.”

Encouragingly, she goes on to say: 

“Five minutes later, they won’t remember what you did or said, but the feeling you left them with will linger.”

The book is available on Amazon and other stores if you want to find out more.

“Creating Moments of Joy” by Jolene Brackey Source: Amazon

14. When in Doubt… Remember the 10 Principles of Communication from Naomi Feil’s “Validation Therapy”

Validation Therapy by Naomi Feil was created between the 1960s and 1980s as a set of guidelines for communicating with older adults.

Feil grew frustrated by the focus on reminding people with dementia of everyday reality, rather than working with the person with dementia’s new reality.

Her answer to this communication issue?

Validation.

As Feil states, “validation doesn’t cure… but it restores their dignity and their feelings of self-worth. It’s a way of being with them, of stepping into their world, feeling what they feel.”

She found that the more those in later stages of Alzheimer’s were forced to face reality in the wrong situations, the more they withdrew or became distressed. 

To improve this area of dementia care and communication in what she calls “old-old” age (85+), she came up with 10 principles that can be helpful to refer to as guidelines: 

  • There is a reason behind the behavior of disoriented old-old people.

  • All people are unique and must be treated as individuals.

  • Painful feelings that are expressed, acknowledged, and validated by a trusted listener will diminish. Painful feelings that are ignored or suppressed will gain strength.

  • Behavior in old-old age is not merely a function of anatomic changes in the brain but reflects a combination of physical, social, and psychological changes that take place over the lifespan.

  • All people are valuable, no matter how disoriented they are.

  • Old-old people cannot be forced to change their behaviors. Behaviors can be changed only if the person wants to change them.

  • Particular life tasks are associated with each stage of life. Failure to complete a task at the appropriate stage of life may lead to psychological problems.

  • When more recent memory fails, older adults try to restore balance in their lives by retrieving earlier memories. When eyesight fails, they use the mind’s eye to see. When hearing goes, they listen to sounds from the past.

  • Old-old people must be accepted non judgmentally.

  • Empathy builds trust, reduces anxiety, and restores dignity

What is Naomi Feil’s Validation Therapy?

A Quick Note Before You Go!

Does your parent face challenges with any of the following?

We realize that communication is just one of the challenges that people living with dementia can experience. Difficulties with personal care, incontinence, and nutrition are also possible. 

Our aim is to support you by researching the highest-quality home health products — and make them simple to browse all on one site. 

For this reason, the motto at Carewell is “Caregiving Starts Here.”

Feel free to click on any of the links above to take a look at products in the respective categories. 

Here’s an example from each category, to give you a better idea of the kind of products that are on offer:

Daily Living

McKesson Terries Slipper Socks

Slipper socks with bottoms that grip and a premium-quality terry cloth. 

These comfy socks are highly elastic with a soft, breathable poly/nylon knit and loops on the inside. Perfect for those who want a secure fit without being constrictive.

Nutrition

Ensure Original Pudding

A creamy, nutritionally-balanced pudding cup with 7 grams of protein.

The pudding offers nutritional support for those with fluid restriction, dysphagia, or malnutrition. It’s also gluten-free, kosher, low-residue, and suitable for lactose intolerance.

Incontinence

Tranquility Premium OverNight Pull-Up Underwear

An absorbent incontinence product that looks like real underwear. These pull-ups are easy to slide up the legs and are made of a breathable, soft fabric. 

Ideal for overnight protection from urinary and fecal leaks/voids, but also practical as an all-day option. The premium design ensures that they’re silent and comfortable for the wearer. 

What’s more, the Peach Mat Core keeps skin dry, prevents bacteria growth, and stops odors. 

Personal Care

Prevail Adult Wipes with Lotion

Quick, clean, and waste-free. Each wipe contains aloe and vitamin E to ensure smoothness and fresh, soft skin throughout the day.

It’s easy to grab one wipe at a time thanks to the single-hand dispensing mechanism. Perfect for personal care, bathroom visits, and wiping down sticky surfaces. 

Household

McKesson Multi-Fold Paper Towels

Multi-fold hand towels made from sustainable ingredients. 

The Rapidly Renewable Fiber (RRF) makes for a softer, brighter, and greener product. 

The towels are available in packs of 250 or cases of 4000. 


Thanks for reading this article on how to talk to parents with dementia. We hope you found the 14 communication tips and strategies useful.

Please let us know if you need any support with dementia care. We’re here to help, all the way from Monday to Sunday.

Give us a call at 855-855-1666 or email our Caregiving Specialists at support@carewell.com

Also, see our 7 recommended apps to help make caregiving easier and Living with dementia: 7 ways to make mealtime easier.

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Declan Davey
Declan Davey

Declan Davey is a health and wellness copywriter from London, UK. His background includes roles as a psychological therapist for Islington Memory Service, where he worked with family caregivers, and as a rehab assistant at Camden Neurology & Stroke Service. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or on his website https://www.declandavey.com.