Caregiving and Dementia, Part 1 – How to Communicate

After receiving a diagnosis of dementia (most cases of dementia in elderly are Alzheimer’s) you may find yourself in the position of caregiver for a loved one suffering from cognitive impairment. Chances are, you were already doing this long before the medical diagnosis. Your loved one’s behaviour and needs are changing, and you need some new strategies to care for them (in this post), as well as cope with the new changes in your life (found in Part 2).

Individuals with cognitive impairments require special care. In most cases, this will start with the family or spouse alone, but as the condition of their dementia progresses they may require 24-hour supervision provided by a caregiver.

The first significant change you will probably notice is challenges in communication. Here it is important to remember that the problem is a disease affecting their brain, and not any fault of your loved one. Try not to be offended or frustrated (more about this in Part 2). Here are some important tips for communicating with a person with dementia:

  • Be clear and simple with your messages/questions – Try breaking down sentences to very simple forms. For example, instead of “Would you like to sit down and have something for breakfast?” try “Sit here. This is your breakfast.”
  • Attitude – A person with dementia sometimes struggles to understand everything you say, or even recall your relation. Maintaining a positive, loving attitude will aid in attracting their attention and making them feel comfortable.
  • Getting their attention – Decrease surrounding distractions (TV, etc.), address them by name, and make eye contact. If the individual is seated or standing, move yourself to their level.
  • Break it down – Reduce an activity into smaller, more manageable steps. Reminding them of steps they may forget, and offering visual clues for what to do next, can be very helpful.
  • Access what they will remember – In most cases, a person with dementia will not recall short term memory, but can still access memories from their past. Asking them questions about yesterday may lead to frustration, but talking to them about their life many years ago may become a happy conversation for them.
  • Distract when necessary – When your loved one becomes upset or frustrated, change the scene. A new distraction or activity can often access a refreshed emotion. Express empathy that they are upset, and suggest something new like a walk or a snack.

Try to remember when communicating that you can’t control behaviour, you can only accommodate it. Bringing your love and warmth into each conversation you have with a loved one suffering from dementia will make it easier and more effective for both of you.

In Part 2 I will talk more about coping strategies for you. It is normal to feel frustrated when communicating with a person suffering from dementia, but there are ways to help you deal with it.