Dementia: Communication Tips That Really Work


Losing the ability to communicate can be one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges facing people with dementia, their families, and caregivers.

As the disease progresses, a senior with dementia experiences a gradual decrease in their ability to communicate. They find it more and more difficult to express themselves clearly and to understand what others say.

Common changes in communication

Each person with dementia is unique and difficulties in communicating thoughts and feelings are very individual. There are many causes of dementia, each affecting the brain in different ways.

Some changes you might notice include:

  • Difficulty in finding a word
  • The content of their speech might not make sense
  • They may not be able to understand what you are saying or only be able to grasp part of it
  • They may lose the normal social conventions of conversations and interrupt or ignore a speaker, or fail to respond when spoken to
  • They may have difficulty expressing emotions appropriately
  • Writing and reading skills may deteriorate

Getting ready to communicate

Minimise background noise

People with dementia can find it difficult to concentrate in any environment, including their own home. If there is a lot of background noise (for example, from a TV, radio, vacuum cleaner, or traffic outside) then your chances of good communication are lessened. Removing or reducing distractions will substantially improve your success. Try shutting windows to reduce sounds from outside or turning the TV or radio down or off, remembering of course to ask the person’s permission to do so.


You are likely to be moving and talking at a much faster pace than the person with dementia.  When caring for someone with dementia, being patient, calm, and clear is important for two main reasons:

  • Progressive memory loss impacts their ability to organise and express their thoughts
  • Recent memory loss causes the past to merge with the present, which creates confusion

The way you communicate can help to alleviate the feelings of stress and frustration that a person with dementia experiences in these situations. So, when getting ready to have a conversation you need to be relaxed. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Relax any bodily tension you may be showing, drop your shoulders, and unclench your jaw. Now think about what you are going to talk about.

Think about how the person may be feeling

Try to put yourself in their shoes. What is their emotional state likely to be? Are they relaxed and happy or anxious and distressed? Are they calm or frightened? Are they likely to respond to humour or are they angry and frustrated?  It’s important for caregivers to remember that the changes experienced by the person with dementia are frightening.

Feels like the first time

It’s important to remember that, while you may see the person several times during a day, each visit may feel like the first time for them. This can have a great impact on a conversation, so consider how you would respond.

During the interaction or conversation

Body language

Did you know that just 7% of communication is the words we use? The rest is body language and tone of voice. Even if a person with dementia cannot follow what you’re saying, they can still pick up on these non-verbal cues – and that is why calm, conscious communication is so important when you are caring for or spending time with someone who has dementia.

Also keep in mind that you may need to use hand gestures and facial expressions to make yourself understood. Pointing or demonstrating can help. A warm smile and shared laughter can often communicate more than words can.

Practical Tips for Communicating

  • Approach the person from the front and identify yourself.
  • Keep sentences short and simple, focusing on one idea at a time.
  • Always allow plenty of time for the person to process and understand what you’ve said.
  • Speak directly to the person and maintain eye contact – it shows you care about what he or she is saying.
  • Be patient – give them time to speak, wait for the person to search around that for the word.
  • Listen as closely as possible. They may lose their thread at times, so give them time to respond and gently redirect to the original topic. Try not to finish sentences.
  • Ask yes or no questions. For example, “Would you like some coffee?” rather than “What would you like to drink?”
  • Avoid criticizing or correcting. Instead, listen and try to find the meaning in what the person says. Repeat what was said to clarify.
  • Offer clear, step-by-step instructions for tasks. Lengthy requests may be overwhelming.
  • Give visual cues. Demonstrate a task to encourage participation.
  • It can be helpful to use orienting names whenever you can, such as “Your son Jack”.

Irregular routines and inconsistent communication styles among family and caregivers can also create confusion, so aim for as much consistency as possible.

Cultivate a Caring attitude

People retain their feelings and emotions even though they may not understand what is being said, so it is important to always maintain their dignity and self-esteem

And finally, just as it is for all of us – encourage and praise as much as possible. Make sure to acknowledge the great things your loved is doing and reinforce happy and loving thoughts.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

There will be good days and bad days. Learning about dementia can help people cope with interactions they find stressful, as they witness their loved one changing. Caring for a family member who is living with dementia or illness can be rewarding, it can also be tiring, so be kind to yourself and be sure to read our tips for avoiding caregiver burn-out.

Memory Care at All Seniors Care

Our elderly care homes are prepared to take care of any senior with dementia symptoms, whether mild or advanced. We have senior living communities with exceptional memory care services so that residents feel safe and supported at all times. We are also building senior communities across the country so that more Canadians have access to these services.

We try to go above and beyond to make sure that our residents are comfortable. Some of our locations have sensory rooms to help residents with dementia listen to music and remember positive memories from their younger days. Click here to see what other ways we try to enhance their quality of life and make them feel better than ever.

Dementia Resident Playing the Guitar at The Courtyards on Eagleson Retirement Residence:

Author:    Julianna McLeod


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