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Dementia and Communication Strategies

Communication affects all aspects of our lives. Our words express our intent, emotion and desires. We understand other’s words and converse about our day. We connect with each other on a deep level through communication. The brain uses very complex pathways to allow us to express and understand each other. When a person develops dementia, brain cells are destroyed and those complex pathways become interrupted. As a result, communication skills become impaired and problems arise. These changes in communication are frustrating to both you and the person with dementia. But, always remember that it’s the disease of dementia, not the person, causing these changes in communication.

Some of the more typical problems you may notice with someone who has dementia are: difficulty finding words, using the wrong word, not being able to follow a conversation, taking longer to respond to questions or simple tasks, or becoming easily frustrated by background noises produced by the television, radio, or even household appliances. These changes may start subtly, but as the disease progresses, may become more pronounced.

Though these changes in communication are frightening and frustrating to both you and the person with dementia, you can minimize the impact by following some simple steps. There are strategies that you can use to communicate more effectively with someone who has dementia. First, remember that a quiet environment and the use of body language is the foundation for effective communication. So, before you speak to your loved one, turn off or turn down the TV or radio, make eye contact, and gently touch the person before you speak to him or her. Then, give simple directions- tell or ask the person to do one thing at a time. It can be especially helpful to ask questions that require a yes or no response. Or, ask questions that give a forced choice response. For example, instead of saying “What do you want to do today?” Ask, “Do you want to go shopping or go for a walk. Rephrase your statement with different words if the person does not understand your first request. Since the brain takes longer to process the spoken word, give ample time for the person to respond. Try not to correct the person when he or she misuses a word or says something odd. Above all, unless the person asks you to, do not try and finish the person’s sentence or thought. However, you can try and express the feeling the person is trying to communicate. Remember, also, to give yourself and your loved one a break if the communication is just not happening for you and you both are becoming frustrated. Taking a few minutes away from the situation reduces stress and will make it easier for the person to find the words.

We all want to stay connected to each other through communication. It can be very scary when dementia takes away that connection. However, with a little patience and a lot of love, using the strategies described above, you will be able to navigate through the complex maze of communication in dementia.