Communicating effectively with people with dementia

Last week, a participant in one of our courses brought in a case for intervision. His case was that he had recently found out that his mother, who lived quite far away from him, had dementia. He wanted to get some tips from the other participants about how he could deal as effectively as possible with this challenging situation. What he hoped to find was a way of dealing with the situation in which he could help his mother as much as possible while also keeping on taking good care of himself. During the exercise he received many compliments and tips. The exercise was both useful to him and to the other participants.

Getting used to beginning dementia

Interacting with people with dementia can be a difficult challenge for family members and friends. In the early stages of dementia it can be hard to get used to the new situation that the person's mental capacities are declining. As a family member or friend you may sometimes be quite surprised by what the person says and does and feel the inclination to confront or correct him or her. For example, when they tell an anecdote which they have told before you may tend to express your surprise or even irritation. But while these inclinations are understandable, they are probably not wise. They may make the person with dementia feel pressured and incompetent. At the same time, your criticism will probably not keep the person from telling the same anecdote again.

Tips for communicating with people with dementia

Once you realize that communication with people with dementia poses some special demands you may want to read a bit about what they are. On the internet there are numerous lists and recommendations. Here is one example. Here is an example in which tips are given for various stages of dementia. There are many other lists to be found. Going through these lists, I notice a few themes.

Calm, connection, simplicity

The first theme is that communicating effectively with people with dementia seems to require CALM: an accepting, patient and calm attitude. Such an attitude keeps the situation from becoming even more stressful than it may already be for the person with dementia. A second theme is CONNECTION. By acknowledging the perspective and feelings of the person, regardless of how out of place they may sometimes seem, you keep the situation from becoming even more confusing for them. Confronting or criticizing them will probably not work and will probably only make them anxious or angry. A third theme is SIMPLICITY. Ask simple questions, explain things simply and don't ask them to do things which they are not capable of anymore.

Keep adapting

One of the most challenging aspects of interacting with people with dementia is that their situation keeps on deteriorating. Communicating effectively with them is not simply a matter of learning a new way of communicating. Instead, you will need to keep on changing your way of communicating as their disease develops.

Request: I would like to learn more about this topic. If you know of any research into effective communication with people with dementia, could you send it to me?