COVID-19 supportline 0333 005 8735  |

How to talk to an elderly person with dementia

Chatting with a loved one who has dementia can be a rewarding and heartwarming experience, but it can also be difficult and sometimes distressing. It can be easy to become frustrated with your parent or relative, or to get upset by the changes you’re seeing in them. But it’s very important to maintain your relationships and not to draw back or stop communicating with someone you love because of the condition, which is harmful and upsetting for both you and for your parent or relative. 

You can support their wellbeing by continuing to connect with them and talk with them as much as possible. This will allow you to understand their condition and their needs as well as maintain your emotional bond.

How does dementia affect communication?

Communication with others, and particularly speech, is one of the aspects of life which dementia impacts most seriously, and because dementia is a progressive condition, these effects will become more and more pronounced over time. It is likely that you’ll start to see your parent or loved one struggling to express logical and rational ideas or maintain longer discussions. They may often be unable to find the right words, to understand sarcasm, humour or tone of voice, or they may have difficulties with pronunciation. 

Of course, memory loss is also one of the primary symptoms of dementia, and this will impact how someone with the condition is able to express themselves. They may lose track of what they were talking about, repeat themself, or get confused about what you’ve been discussing.

Understanding someone with dementia can be every bit as challenging as helping them to understand you. While it can be distressing, it’s very important to know how the condition is affecting your loved one, and how this will progress in the future, so you can be prepared and take a productive and positive approach to communicating with them.

How to talk to someone with dementia

To help you communicate with your parent or loved one, and to stay connected with them despite the challenges brought by their dementia, try following these tips:

  • Keep it simple: Managing your expectations in a conversation with someone who has dementia is very important, for example, don’t go in expecting that you’ll be able to have an in-depth discussion about the news, this is likely just to confuse and upset them, and it will probably upset you too. Focus on talking about your everyday lives and surroundings.
  • Use non-verbal communication: Everybody, not just people with dementia, uses a lot of non-verbal communication in order to connect with others. For your loved one, this will become extremely important, especially as the condition progresses. Encouraging them to maintain eye contact while you speak to each other, and using physical touch, such as holding their hand, helps you feel connected even when talking is difficult. Facial expressions and body language can also be a good way to understand how they’re feeling when they’re unable to express this verbally.
  • Don’t keep correcting them: When someone has dementia, it’s inevitable that they’ll make mistakes and forget things. It can be tempting to keep trying to correct them, but sadly this can’t change the condition, and is likely to just upset them. Therefore, it’s best to go with the flow rather than challenging them, and it’s vital to never laugh at them or get angry when they get something wrong.
  • Be patient, not patronising: The feeling of being talked down to or treated in a patronising way can be very frustrating for someone with dementia. Even if you’re finding it difficult to communicate with them, try to stay calm and continue to take deep breaths. Speak slowly and clearly, but don’t talk down to them. Instead, be patient and attentive.

What should you not say to someone with dementia?

When communicating with someone with dementia, it’s essential to be sensitive and avoid topics that could cause distress or confusion. Avoid discussing:

1. Recent memory loss: Drawing attention to their forgetfulness can be frustrating and embarrassing. Avoid saying, ‘Remember when..?’.

2. Direct contradictions: Correcting their statements may lead to frustration and agitation.

3. Complex or abstract Ideas: Stick to simple, concrete language, as complex concepts can be confusing.

4. Recent events or news: Their grasp of current events may be limited, leading to confusion or anxiety.

5. Loss of loved ones: Mentioning recent bereavement can trigger grief anew, as they may not remember the loss.

6. Ageing or health decline: Avoid discussing their physical or cognitive decline, as it may cause distress.

7. Financial or legal matters: These topics can be overwhelming and may lead to confusion.

Instead, engage in conversations about their past, hobbies or interests, focusing on positive, familiar, and emotionally comforting subjects to create a sense of connection and comfort.

How to calm down an elderly person with dementia

People with dementia are not always easy to deal with, and can sometimes become very distressed, anxious and, in some cases, quite aggressive. You may find that if you have a loved one with dementia, you find their behaviour increasingly difficult to predict and understand. Having techniques at hand to use when your parent or relative becomes agitated or angry will be crucial to ensuring the best possible quality of life both for them and for you. Try these methods to calm your loved one down.

Set a good example

You may have heard of the concept of ‘mirroring’. It’s a behavioural pattern exhibited by all humans — including those with dementia — and causes us to subconsciously imitate the behaviour of the people we’re interacting with. This means that if you remain still, speak calmly and quietly and breathe deeply, your loved one is more likely to match your tone. 

Listen and engage

One of the biggest sources of frustration for people with dementia can be the feeling that those around them don’t understand how they’re feeling, and that they’re struggling to express themselves. Make sure that you listen intently to what the person with dementia is saying, and repeat what they say back to them to show that they are being heard. 

Focus on feelings

Sometimes, the things someone with dementia are saying may not entirely make sense. It’s important that you still listen to them, but try to consider not just their words but what emotions might be behind them. Is it confusion, or fear? Ask them to tell you how they feel, and what you can do to make them feel better. 

Limit distraction and overstimulation

People with dementia are often very sensitive to their environment, and can easily become upset if they feel disoriented or overstimulated. To calm them down, it’s often necessary to change their surroundings, for example by taking them to a quieter area without bright lights or background noise. It’ll be very hard to communicate with them effectively if the TV is on or music is playing, so turn these off before you begin a conversation.

Find constructive outlets

Finding activities to help your loved one express themself and avoid boredom or loneliness can be helpful in preventing the build-up of frustration and calming them down if they do become riled up. Going for regular walks is a great way to promote well-being and prevent someone from feeling cooped up. Stepping outside, either for a walk or just into the garden, can help diffuse a tense situation. Arts and crafts can also be an excellent outlet for someone with dementia to express their feelings and alleviate boredom.

Caring for someone with dementia can be a full-time responsibility and extremely challenging at times. To better understand how a specialist dementia care home can support the needs of those requiring care and to enquire about a care home within The Fremantle Trust contact us today.

We have dementia care homes located across the Buckinghamshire county. Learn more about care homes nearest to you:
Dementia care Aylesbury
Dementia care home Princes Risborough
Dementia care home Chalfont St Peter
Dementia Care home in Amersham
Dementia Care homes in Slough
Dementia care home Chesham
Dementia care home Stoke
Dementia care Burnham 
Dementia care High Wycombe
Dementia care Marlow