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How to Communicate With A Loved One Who Has Dementia

By Karla Sullivan

She was assisting her mother with the stairs in her home. While descending together, her Mom froze, cried out and frightfully stared at the last stair. Her mother was recovering from hip surgery and the daughter thought that it was physical pain that she was expressing. But it was not.

Signs of Dementia

When her daughter asked if she hurt, Mom replied that there was a stranger standing at the bottom of the staircase. Couldn’t her daughter see him? The daughter could not believe what she was witnessing. Mom had a poor memory but there was no stranger at the bottom of the stairs. She did not know what to do but, without thinking, responded with some exasperation that she did know what in the world her mother was talking about! Because of the daughters tone, the mother’s mood changed from terrified to angry at her daughter’s disbelief. Both began to argue. Suddenly, the Mother slightly turned, pointed to the last stair to prove her point and as quickly as the hallucination occurred, it had disappeared. Though still angry and now extremely confused, Mom cautiously continued down the stairs.

The Cause

Dementia is not a disease but a symptom of a disease such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson and Huntington’s. Many feel that memory loss is the most prominent problem of those with dementia but it can include depression, impaired judgment, language difficulties and even hallucinations. According to Mayo Clinic, some medical conditions can cause symptoms of dementia and are treatable so it is important to see a doctor to determine the underlying cause so treatment can begin before symptoms get worse. But communication on several different levels can be severely affected by the progression of dementia and besides those that have dementia, family members, too, are heart-broken at such a loss by not knowing how to passionately communicate with their loved one.

What You Should Do

The following suggestions will help improve communication:

  • Show interest in whatever is being communicated.
  • Make sure eye contact is engaged.
  • A low pitched voice will create better responses.
  • A small touch while speaking or giving direction will help the other focus.
  • Use body language like pointing to the refrigerator if you are talking about making lunch.
  • Be patient if you are asking a question. Give the person more time to respond.
  • Give short directives.
  • Hold up visuals. If you are talking about a house plant, have it in your hands as you speak.
  • If they are fearful, acknowledge their fears.
  • Use laughter.
  • Ask them to talk about the past like when they were in school.
  • Write out short questions or concerns. Sometimes, reading gives someone with dementia more time to contemplate.
  • Have them carry a daily planner with them.

What You Should Not Do

The following should be avoided:

  • Don’t try to communicate with background noise such as the television.
  • Don’t leave the person out of the conversation when conversing with others.
  • Don’t overload the person with directives such as we are going to put on our shoes, get our jacket and go to the store.
  • Never show anger or try to argue.
  • Don’t crowd them.
  • Don’t try to persuade if the person shows signs of irritation.
  • Don’t re-arrange the room or home.
  • Don’t change their routine.

Karla Sullivan writes on health, famly, relationships, education and being a Baby Boomer. You can read her column at www.examiner.com/x-43799-Chicago-Career-Coach-Examiner    She also writes for Western International University on student retention and have published over 100 articles. She has written for the University of Phoenix Focux, Chicago Tribune, AARP, Reunion magazine and Sacred Journey.



Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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