Talking with people with dementia

People with dementia have trouble communicating, as the disease affects their brain more. They might struggle to say how they feel or what they need.

If the older adult has dementia, when you talk with them, try to:

  • Be specific and direct. Avoid using lots of pronouns, figures of speech or descriptive words. For example, say "Jim is working. He will be here later," rather than, "He's busy like a bee. I'm sure he'd love to be here with us, but he's at work until later this afternoon."

  • Slow down and use simple sentences. Instead of saying, "Before she came home, Natalia went to the store to get groceries," say, "Natalia went to the store. She bought groceries. Then Natalia came home." Focus each sentence on one idea or action.

  • Repeat and rephrase anything the older adult doesn't understand.

  • Share one piece of information or ask one question at a time. Rather than asking, "Do you want water, juice or tea?" ask, "Do you want a cold drink or a hot drink?" Then ask, "Do you want water or juice?"

  • Avoid open-ended questions. Instead of asking, "What would you like to do?" ask, "Would you like to listen to music or go for a walk?"

  • Give the older adult plenty of time to talk.

  • Talk in a quiet place and limit distractions. Look directly at the older adult when you speak.

  • Avoid quizzing the older adult. Rather than asking, "Do you remember Martina?" say, "Martina is the nurse here."

  • Avoid correcting the older adult. Find something about what the older adult said that you can agree with or build on. Don't use a tone of voice or words that sound like baby talk.

Assume the older adult hears and understands you. Don't talk as though the older adult isn't there.

Use non-verbal communication, by:

  • Using gestures, like pointing to things you're talking about

  • Smiling and looking at the older adult

  • Using your tone of voice to convey emotions and emphasize questions

  • Using encouraging facial expressions, body language and tone of voice

If you're angry or frustrated, take time to calm down. Leave the room for a minute, if you can. Otherwise, the negative emotions can come across in your voice, expression or gestures, even if the words you're saying are positive.

Try not to take any negative things that the older adult says personally. People with dementia often have trouble expressing how they feel.

If the older adult seems upset, ask yourself what could be bothering them. The older adult could be hungry, cold, in pain, scared, tired or feeling overwhelmed.

Some people with dementia are relieved to discuss the disease openly. Others are not. Take your lead from the older adult.

If you're helping with health, legal, financial or other plans, say you want to understand and honor the older adult's wishes. Encourage the older adult to make plans and discuss preferences early, before the disease makes communication more difficult.

Always talk about dementia as a health condition, rather than something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.