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Compassionate Communication with People with Dementia

Compassionate Communication with People with Dementia

If a friend or loved one has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia it is important to learn effective and compassionate ways to communicate. Dementia causes changes in communication as the illness progresses and we must change our normal style of communication to adapt to these changes. Depending on the stage of the illness, people with dementia may have difficulty finding the right words to describe what they are trying to say, leading to frustration. They have problems understanding the meaning of written and spoken words and can have great difficulty paying attention and filtering out background sound or activity. In the later stages people with Dementia may confusion or even forget their primary language and revert to a language of their childhood.

To connect with a person with Alzheimer’s or other dementia it is important to keep in mind that the person should be treated with respect and dignity. Remember you are communicating with an adult and address the person directly – avoid talking to them as though they were a child. Start by addressing the person by name and casually introducing yourself even if you have known the person a long time – “Hi Joe, it’s Mary, your next door neighbor.” This lessens the anxiety they may be feeling because although they may recognize you as familiar they may not remember your name or relationship to them. Be warm and friendly and maintain good eye contact. Use, short and clear sentences and repeat as often as necessary while they process and understand what you are saying. Allow plenty of time and don’t rush.

It is very important not to “quiz” a person with dementia. This is not helpful nor will it “improve their memory.” You wouldn’t ask a person who is blind to tell you the color of your shirt. Asking a person with a progressive brain illness to recite what they did yesterday or had for breakfast this morning produces anxiety and reminds them of their disability. Likewise, don’t take their memory issues personally or try to reason, argue or “prove” what they are saying is not correct. Kindness is more important than honesty when communicating with a person with dementia. Positive communication strategies involve responding to anger or agitation calmly and reassuring the person that everything will be ok. Try to respond to the feelings behind their words and redirect them to an activity they enjoy if the communication becomes difficult.

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