How to Communicate With a Parent With Dementia

Aug 31, 2016 3 min
communicate with a parent with dementia

It can be difficult to know how to cope with denial in dementia, but there are things you can do to help your loved one to understand, accept, and live with dignity.

How to communicate with a parent with dementia

When an elderly parent has dementia, communication can be difficult. But with patience, support and care you can still engage with them and enjoy your time together.

When a parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it can be devastating for the whole family. As the disease progresses, your loved one may have difficulty understanding conversations, their personality may change and they may feel lost and confused.

Communication problems are a key part of dementia. Your parent may struggle to find the right word or have difficulty following a discussion. This can cause them to lose confidence and withdraw. It can be frustrating and upsetting for family and friends but there are ways to help them understand and keep the lines of communication open.

Keep communicating

Include your parent in conversations and don‘t try to answer questions for them or complete their sentences. It can help to speak slightly more slowly and use simple words and sentences. Don’t complicate things by talking in long paragraphs; offer one idea at a time.

Be direct and clear

It can help to use direct questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Instead of ‘what do you want for lunch?’ ask ‘do you want soup for lunch?’ Pronouns like he, she and it can be confusing, try to mention a person or an object by name each and every time.

Maintain eye-contact

When you are talking, look your parents straight in the eye. This will help them to focus on you alone.

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Watch your body language

Think about your gestures and facial expressions. Non-verbal communication is very important to people with dementia and they will pick up on any anger or anxiety. Try not to make sudden movements, as these may shock them and cause distress.

Be patient

You may need to repeat things many times, it can be frustrating but try not to let any irritation show.


Give your parent time to express their feelings and focus on what they are saying. Turn off the TV or radio so that there are no distractions.

Respect their dignity

Developing dementia can be confusing, humiliating and very upsetting. Try not to be patronising or use baby talk. Don’t challenge your parent’s memory by asking if they recall something. In fact, avoid saying ‘do you remember?” or ‘have you forgotten?” altogether, it will only to serve to make them feel inadequate and sad.

Stimulate their senses

Remember that communication doesn’t have to be verbal. In fact, with people with severe dementia you may be able to engage more, simply by interacting through activities instead of conversation. Choose something that your parent loves and enjoy it together, maybe bake bread, plant flowers or go for a walk.

The power of touch

Try offering items from nature for your parent to touch, hold and work with. A bunch of herbs, a flower, the warmth of a block of wood can all unlock forgotten experiences, feelings and recollections from the past.

Healing hands

Dementia can be lonely and the touch of another person can be very soothing and reassuring. Give your parent a hug, or massage their hands with a favourite lotion to reconnect.

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The magic of music

Listen to music together or have a sing along. Favourite tunes and lyrics are often remembered when lots of other memories have been lost and music may help trigger happy memories.

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Caring for a loved one with dementia takes patience and a great deal of love. The energy required can be draining, and it’s sometimes necessary to take a break. Don’t feel guilty if you need some time for yourself to rest and regroup, we all need to recharge. Whatever your care requirements, we can help you.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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