Tips for talking to people with dementia

Jan 7, 2019 2 min

These tips can help you avoid some of the frustrations and pitfalls of talking to people with dementia, and get the most out of your time together, and ultimately give your loved one the benefits of social interaction.

When people with dementia are distressed or anxious, they’re more likely to wander or engage in other dangerous behaviour. Keeping things positive can guard against distress – and be more rewarding for you.

Talk about things in the present

While it might be tempting to reminisce with a loved one, one of the difficult parts of dementia is the problems accessing older memories in addition to the lack of new memory retention.

With this in mind, it can be better for both parties to stick to topics in the present: “What do you think of this sandwich?”, “It’s lovely and sunny today, isn’t it?” are easier questions to answer than “Do you remember what I told you when I visited last month?”.

Make notes

If you see your loved one at regular intervals, it might be useful to make notes in their diary. For example – when to expect a carer visit, the date and time of your next visit or the dates of doctor’s appointments. This can help to limit confusion and distress, and can be a useful point of reference for both you and your loved one.

Leave on a good note

The amygdala is the part of the brain which processes emotions, and is responsible for fear and pleasure. It’s typically one of the last parts of the brain to be damaged in most forms of dementia. This means that while the parts of the brain that handle short-term memory may not be working properly, the emotions – positive and negative – can outlast the experience that caused them.

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So while an argument might be forgotten very quickly after you leave, the emotional response to that argument can linger for some time. Wherever possible, try and leave your loved one with a positive feeling.

Don’t contradict, redirect

While avoiding confrontation might be easier on both parties, it’s not always realistic. Alzheimer’s Society have put together some helpful resources when broaching difficult topics with a loved one with dementia.

While it might feel important to tell the truth to someone you care about, it’s worth remembering that they may not remember what you say, only how it makes them feel.

Try redirecting conversations or giving answers that will avoid distressing them. For example, if your father asks where your late mother is, saying something like “She’s not here today, Dad” is less likely to cause distress than saying “Mum died two years ago, remember?”.

Be patient

Repetitive speech is a typical symptom of dementia. It can also be wearing for the person on the other end of the conversation. It’s important to remember that they won’t remember asking the question before, or your answer to it. They’re not doing it on purpose. So while it can be frustrating for you, try to keep calm and give your original answer again, as saying “You’ve asked me that twice already.” is not going to be helpful.

Try music

Music has been proven to reduce anxiety and restlessness in people with Alzheimer’s. A well-chosen song might also prompt memories of the past, stimulating further conversation. See if you can pick songs relevant to them, perhaps by a favourite artist. Find out more about the benefits of music therapy for dementia here.

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Dr Jamie WilsonFounder and Chief Medical Officer at Hometouch

Dr Jamie Wilson is hometouch’s founder and Chief Medical Officer. Jamie’s creation of hometouch was inspired by his work as a dementia psychiatrist in the NHS, and he has written about healthcare issues in The Times and the Evening Standard. Jamie has a MBBS from the University of Leeds and has spent a decade in the NHS, working as a Psychiatric Registrar and Memory Specialist at Imperial College Hospital.

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