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How to Talk with Someone who has Dementia

Updated on January 2, 2015
Talking to a dementia patient gives them a feeling of self worth and connectedness
Talking to a dementia patient gives them a feeling of self worth and connectedness | Source

Dementia is a horrible, debilitating disease that affects not only a person's memory but their ability to reason, learn and communicate. Plaque builds up on the brain, destroying brain cells which affects auditory processing and language skills. Caregivers and loved ones must learn how to communicate with a dementia patient to reduce their common feelings of isolation.

Use Clear Speech When Talking with Dementia Patients

When you are speaking with a loved one or a patient, speak slowly and distinctly using clear words and concise sentences. Use a calm and reassuring voice. Ask only one question at a time and give the patient plenty of time to respond. Be patient; if they do not respond, try again. Elderly people can become anxious when they feel rushed, which can manifest in feelings of anger and frustration.

Try to use simple words and short sentences. For example, say "Its time for lunch." (Pause) "Would you like a Diet Coke?" Instead of "Come on out to the kitchen for lunch now. Would you like water, a Diet Coke or lemonade?"

If a dementia patient repeats a question or a conversation, go with the flow. You need not tell the person he is repeating himself. If you need to redirect the conversation, then do so.

PET scan of a patient with dementia
PET scan of a patient with dementia | Source
PET scan of a normal human brain
PET scan of a normal human brain | Source

Non Verbal Communication and Dementia

Based on the research of UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian, human communication is divided into three areas:

  • Body language, 55%
  • Tone of voice, 38%
  • Spoken words, 7%

Since dementia patients have difficulty with auditory processing, realize the importance of sensory touch. A simple gesture of slowly touching a person’s hand is helpful before talking with them. A person may not understand the words you speak, but they may recognize your tone of voice.


Find Ways to Connect With Dementia Patients

There are multiple stages of dementia. With each progression, the patient's ability to communicate decreases. Therefore, caregivers must try even harder to find ways to connect with their patients. Keep in mind, a person with dementia may have a different reality than yours. Constantly correcting them can cause them to feel embarrassed and upset. Try engaging them in conversation about whatever timeframe they are in at that moment. For many patients, they feel most comfortable talking about events when they were children. They may not recall what they ate for breakfast, but they may remember telling you the name of their favorite 4th grade teacher. So how do you discover topics to talk about? Talk to family members and loved ones to discover events in their past. Did they serve in the military? Did they live on a farm? Did they have a pet dog? There is so much they can no longer process, when you do find something they find something they can talk about, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and belonging, even if it is short lived.

Recognize people with dementia have good days and bad days and sometimes they just don't want to talk. Try reading a book to someone as they may just like to hear the sound of your voice. If that isn't working, just sit and people watch for a while. It's important to remember that you may not always have a connection, so when you do, appreciate the moment.

Treat Dementia Patients with Dignity

Be careful of talking down to a dementia patient as you do not want to make them feel inferior. Do not talk about a person with dementia while they are in the same room. They can likely hear you and understand some, if not all of what you are saying. They can also pick up on your tone of voice and frustration.

Dementia patients may seem fairly alert one day and highly confused the next. Sometimes they don't want to talk; other times they are longing for someone to take interest in them. Caregivers need to be patient and always treat them with dignity and respect.

Feel free to share your strategies for talking with dementia patients.

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    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      DebMartin, your comments make me smile because you have a beautiful appreciation of the train ride and are able to find the good in this horrible disease. Those old memories that surface (over and over) allow you to get to know your loved one even better. It takes patience to listen to the same stories, but I find that every so often, a new story is told and I get to learn a little more. Thanks for your comments!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I remember my brother kept trying to correct my Mother on things she would say. Things that were wrong but, with her dementia it really didn't matter. It was so hard for her to get corrected all the time.

      I tried to teach him to go along with it. We could just as easily be on a train going on a trip as sitting in a hallway. Then we'd have something to talk about, like where we were going and what we would do once we got there. But he'd want her to go look out a window and see we were not moving and try to get her to understand she was in a nursing home, not on a train.

      I loved that train though. It would take her into her past and I learned so much about her that she had never shared with me. I learned about her best friends in school, I learned about her experiences at summer camp, I learned a lot about my grandparents. That train was a wonderful ride.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Thank you FatBoyThin for reading the hub and sharing your thoughts. I think the key is to always strive to treat these patients with dignity and respect. Sometimes it can be hard as their "filters" seem to be non existent!

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      I work in occupational therapy and sometimes meet clients who have dementia, or who have a partner or relatives who has the illness. I know how hard it can be to communicate with them while ensuring they are treated with dignity and respect. Interesting Hub and some good advice. Voted up.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Thank you iWilliams311 for your comments. It is not easy being a caregiver to a dementia patient, but using different ways to communicate and being patient sure helps.

    • iWilliams311 profile image

      Imani Williams 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Wow! You have written a very useful hub here. I got interested with the title because it never occurred to me that there could be a different approach to talking/communicating with Alzheimer's patients. When I read about this disease and the long-term care that comes with it, it's usually about the changes of the patient. Now we see how we, the caregivers, can change ourselves to better communicate and provide their needs.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Thank you Jason. I think it is hard to relate to a caregiver or family member trying to communicate with a dementia patient, until you too, have had the experience of being with someone with this sad, deteriorating condition. Because of your experience with your grandmother, you have much more compassion for others going through it. I am glad your grandmother had good care.

    • Jason Matthews profile image

      Jason Matthews 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      What a great hub. You have shared some good insights. I know that spending time with a person who has dementia can be very difficult. It can be stressful, painful, and discouraging at times. My grandmother had dementia. She was the sweetest lady, but eventually she could not even remember my name or any of her children's names. Fortunately, she had very good quality assisted living care and I think her last years on this earth were happy ones.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      aykianink, I am so sorry you are hurting. Experiencing a person advance through dementia is so hard. I wish you peace.

      gsidley, such an interesting experience you had with the "We'll Meet Again" song. My Dad loves to sing old songs. When he sings I know he is happy. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      6 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Useful hub - voted up.

      I think the advice to use different sensory channels - sounds/touch/sights/tastes/smells - can be particularly effective. Many years ago, when I worked with some old men suffering dementia, we always found that some sound and vision extracts from the war period (e.g. Vera Lynn singing, "We'll Meet Again") would always get them chattering. It was moving to watch.

    • aykianink profile image


      6 years ago

      I hurt so badly as I read this. Good stuff, Laura. Much appreciated.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Alta5656 my heart goes out to you. May you find peace and comfort in her smile.

    • Alta5656 profile image


      6 years ago from Davao City, Philippines

      It is middle to late dementia for my mother.. She talks about things we cannot understand and talks in a very strange and unknown language but, still, we just let her. When she ask questions, we will answer with one or two words not even related to it. She will smile satisfied that we take notice of her "queries". Most of the time she just sits quiet, and when we look at her direction, we will give her a wide smile to let her know that we're just around watching her. And she would smile back.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      B. Leekley, thanks for stopping by. I am glad you found the hub useful. billybuc, my father has had dementia for five years. It is a hard road. Finding things we can laugh about helps. Most of my father's friends have already passed away. Your friend is lucky to have you in his life.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My best friend is 52 and has Alzheimer's; he was diagnosed when he was 46. It is painful to watch his deterioration, but he and I have formed a bond, and there is mutual understanding and respect, and we do the best we can.....when the time comes, he will have the best care possible because he is surrounded by love. :)

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      This is a very good companion hub to the one on whether a dementia is hereditary. Good advice. Thanks. Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared.

    • LauraGSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      denisemai, I agree the same old jokes and stories over and over again are tough, but if it makes them smile, then its worth it. Thanks for reading!

    • jellygator profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      This really humanizes the dementia patient well. It's easy for caregivers to become frustrated, but I like the way you highlighted that spoken communication is really such a small percentage of how we communicate. This seems to me to be an important point to remember when coping with dementia in a loved one.

    • denisemai profile image

      Denise Mai 

      6 years ago from Idaho

      Very helpful advice. We do need to work hard to be extra patient with the elderly. Although it can be difficult when they tell the same, long story several times. Like you said, we need to just go with the flow!


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