Communicating With A Loved One With Dementia Can Be A Real Struggle

I’d like a glass of water.

Such a simple request. But for people with dementia, communicating their needs can be a real struggle. They may invent new words to describe familiar items, easily lose their train of thought, revert back to their native tongue, even speak less frequently. As caregivers, it takes patience, understanding and strong listening skills to open the lines of communication. These tips may help:

  • Stay comforting and reassuring. Imagine the frustration when language becomes a barrier to achieving comfort! Your support can keep your loved one calm, which subsequently increases the likelihood that you will be able to meet her needs.
  • Try not to correct or criticize. It’s the disease that’s causing the errors, not your loved one. Listening carefully can help you uncover what he wants.
  • Remember that arguing is futile. Arguing, you may notice, tends to make stressful situations worse. Provided that your loved one isn’t causing harm to himself or others, try to avoid arguing as often as possible.
  • Use your hands! Pointing, gesturing and other body language is incredibly effective communication tactics. Encourage her to try.
  • Read the emotions. Your loved one’s tone or the look on her face can speak volumes about how she’s feeling, even if her words are garbled. Slowing down for a moment to “read” these cues creates a safe space that’s easier for you to understand.


What is she thinking? And how can I help?

People with dementia suffer from a progressive biological brain disorder. Some aspects are easy to understand: forgetfulness, for example. But others, such as the inability to take care of oneself, may be harder for you to comprehend. Let us help. These suggestions can help enrich your relationship, making you both feel better.

Wandering, incontinence, repetitive speech or actions, paranoia, sleeplessness, the inability to bathe or dress, even physical agitation while you’re trying to help him do so—dementia can be a trigger for all of it. You can manage these experiences if you remember: you cannot change your loved one. A more effective tactic is to accommodate the behavior.

He wants to eat without pants? Let him! She insists on repeatedly cleaning out the linen closet? That’s OK! Often behaviors have underlying reasons: he may find his pant’s fabric to be unbearably itchy. She may want to feel productive. Identifying the root of the behavior will not only help you understand where it’s coming from, it will help open doors to a variety of positive activities, exercises and experiences you can share together.


Please eat!

Mealtimes, once wonderful moments to reconnect and recharge, can become incredibly stressful events with a person who has dementia. And that’s if caregivers can even get their loved one to eat at all! To protect this physically and emotionally vital part of life, it’s important to re-frame how you approach meals. Doing so can help create a healthier, more productive environment.

Your number one priority is to make mealtime calm and easy. Develop a balanced diet based on a variety of healthful foods, but offer two or three dishes at each individual sitting, perhaps even one at a time. Set the table with only what is needed—centerpieces can be confusing. Keep your surroundings quiet and your time together open. It may take longer for your loved one to finish his meal, but the time shared does wonders for his well being.

All this said, there’s no reason to forgo your loved one’s independence. As forks become harder to manage, try spoons. When spoons become difficult, finger foods are a wonderful way to preserve a sense of self. And don’t worry about things getting messy! It’s bound to happen, so dig in (maybe even join in!) and make the most of every fork-, spoon- or handful together.


Love more. Worry less.

The thought of your loved one wondering is frightening. It could be leaving the bedroom, leaving the front yard or leaving a public park. Of course certain situations are more dangerous than others, but any moment that a person with dementia is not safe is scary for those who care.

To alleviate the worry, and protect the one you love, consider taking these simple precautions to help you both breathe more easily:

  • Make it harder to get out. Installing locks on doors and windows, high up so that they’re not easily noticed, can make a difference. Motion detectors or even bells on doorknobs can alert you if someone starts to go outside. If budget allows, installing a fence with secured gates can prevent wandering, too.
  • Use ID. A loved one who can easily be identified is much safer than one who isn’t. Keeping an ID in a wallet isn’t fail-proof—a wallet can be left at home or lost. Try a bracelet or other piece of jewelry, some of which come with radio transmitters. Sewing ID tags on clothes or affixing temporary tattoos to arms also work.
  • Put up signs. These are more helpful than you’d realize. Signs inside a door that say, “Stop!” or “Do not enter!” can prevent loved ones from wandering. Labeling doors “bathroom” or “kitchen” or “basement” can also help—these cues direct those with dementia to where they want to go.
  • Stand out. If you’re taking your loved one to a public place, insist on bright, easily seen clothing. Should you become separated, your loved one will be more easily spotted.
  • Get friendly! Neighbors are typically more than willing to help you keep an eye on your loved one. Let them know that she may wander and give them your contact information in case they notice that she has.