Being able to communicate effectively with your loved one with dementia can make caregiving less stressful. Good communication skills may also help in preventing misunderstandings and reducing resistance or anger episodes from your loved one.

Why it can be difficult to communicate with a person with dementia

Having difficulty communicating with persons with dementia can occur because: 

  • They may have difficulties understanding what is said to them.

  • They may not be able to find the right words and thus substitute with an incorrect word, or may not be able to find any words at all.

  • There may come a time when they can hardly communicate accurately or successfully through language.

The Department of Psychological Medicine from Changi General Hospital (CGH), a member of the SingHealth group, shares caregiver tips on how to communicate with a loved one with dementia.

8 Easy tips to communicate with persons with dementia

 1. Watch your non-verbal cues 

  • Non-verbal communication is particularly important when a person with dementia is losing their language skills.

  • Watch for signs of discomfort or distress such as frowning, anxiety, agitation or restlessness.

  • Body language, facial expression, and tone and pitch of voice play a more important role in conveying your message than the words used.

  • Gently touching or holding the person’s hand may provide a sense of tenderness, calm and reassurance.

 2. Get the person's attention and minimise distractions

  • Approach your loved one within full view to avoid scaring them.

  • Ensure they are able to hear, see or feel you. Consider hearing or visual aids if your loved one has vision or hearing problems.

  • Address them by name and identify yourself by name and/or relationship.

  • Minimise distractions. Turn off the radio or television, or move to a quieter place.

 3. Convey clear messages

  • Use simple words and short sentences.

  • Repeat your message or question, or rephrase it in a different way if your loved one cannot understand you.

  • Avoid short forms and use terms and words that they are familiar with.

  • Use visual cues (e.g., while assisting them with getting dressed, show them the clothes they can choose from).

 4. Ask simple questions

  • Ask only one question at a time.

  • Avoid questions that rely on short-term memory (e.g., what they had for lunch).

  • Ask close-ended questions so that they only need to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

  • If you are asking them to make a choice, narrow it down to only two options. For example, instead of asking “What do you want to drink?”, ask “Do you want coffee or tea?”. It would be best to show your loved one the choices to choose from.

 5. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart

  • Be patient when waiting for your loved one’s reply.

  • If they are struggling for an answer, you can help by suggesting words.

  • Watch for non-verbal cues and body language, and respond accordingly.

 6. Respond with reassurance

  • Try not to tell your loved one that they are wrong or incompetent to do certain tasks.

  • Respond with verbal and physical expressions of reassurance to allow them to feel loved and safe (e.g., touching, hugging).

  • Offer frequent praises and encouragement when they complete a task, regardless of mistakes or how well they have done.

  7. Talk about the good old days

  • Reminiscing about the past is often a soothing and affirming activity. Allow your loved one to talk about their past.

  • You may use old photos or objects to start the conversation.

 8. Use humour and laughter

  • Engage with humour whenever possible, but not at the person’s expense. Persons with dementia tend to retain their social skills and are usually happy to laugh along with you. Even when language abilities fail, the five senses and sense of humour remain intact.

  • You can also use music (hearing), colours/objects (sight), spices/food/drink (smell), animals/blankets/pillows (touch), food which is familiar and enjoyed by your loved one and sweet treats/snacks (taste) to evoke happy memories.

Ref: H24

Learn how to manage anger and aggression in dementia patients, click here.

Learn how to manage inappropriate (disinhibited) behaviours in dementia patients, click here.

Learn how to manage repetition (repetitive behaviour) in dementia patients, click here.