How to Talk to Someone With Dementia

Here are 5 ways to communicate and connect with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s.

People with Alzheimer’s and dementia live with brain damage that affects their thought processes, memory and behavior. While their behavior can be upsetting and frustrating for you, it’s even worse for them. 

The key to more positive interactions with Alzheimer’s patients, according to Teepa Snow, OTR/L, FAOTA, is to understand a person’s abilities and limitations and then adjust your words, actions and expectations accordingly. Snow has worked as a Registered Occupational Therapist for over 30 years and is a leading educator on dementia. She explains that when a person gets Alzheimer’s or dementia, everyone has to learn to be flexible because the patient can’t be.

Here are 5 tips for positively engaging with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients:

  1. Affirm their reality – When a patient’s version of what’s going on is not real, trying to force reality often causes confusion or embarrassment. Instead of correcting the person’s take on reality, repeat his or her words back to affirm that you have heard what is being said even if you don’t agree.
    Your best response is: “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying is…”
  2. Acknowledge emotion – If a person is angry, upset or irritated about something, show that you think the emotion is legitimate. Your words can make a difference by acknowledging that you understand how the patient feels.
    Your best response is: “I’m sorry you feel that way…” or “That shouldn’t have happened…”
  3. Don’t be specific in your ask – Frustration results when a patient can’t find the words to answer your question.
    Guide the conversation by saying: “Tell me more about it…” or “What are you thinking?”
  4. Adjust your tone – Deepen your voice, use a questioning tone and add emotion or pauses to your dialogue to grab the person’s attention. Repeating yourself and getting louder only increases agitation.
  5. Promote engagement – Focus on discussion topics and activities that the person still cares about. When people feel accepted and understood, they are less anxious.

Being flexible in how you respond to a patient’s thoughts, words and actions can improve interactions with those you love and will likely make your visit a happier one.

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Date Last Reviewed: April 11, 2018

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Teepa Snow, OTR/L, FAOTA

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