Dementia is one of the most challenging conditions associated with aging, both for the patient, and for those around him. Although there are multiple forms of dementia, all affect damage to the patient’s brain cells and impede the individual’s ability to process information, make decisions and communicate verbally. Therefore, the patient and his caregivers, family, and friends are often confused and frustrated by the challenges of daily functioning and interacting with one another. Initially, your loved one may have trouble finding the right words to describe things or complete thoughts, confuse sequences when telling a story, or forget what they just said or intended to say. In a more progressive stage, the older adult may have a hard time following your words, take more time to respond to others or to join a conversation, and ask repetitive questions. As the disease progresses, the dementia patient only uses very few words each day, speaks strangely, or constantly repeats what was already said. In light of the challenge of this diagnosis, how can family members and caregivers create an environment that still enables sharing experiences, laughing, and talking together? We’ve gathered some pointers that are sure to enhance your relationship with someone whose communication abilities are compromised because of their declining condition.
1. Recognize communication as a new challenge.
No one chooses to relinquish their faculties. A debilitating condition is hard both for the patient and for their loved ones around them who struggle to give support. By allowing ourselves permission to mourn the difficulties, we can more effectively deal with discomforts and replace negative attitudes with proactive strategies.
2. Remind the older adult who you are.
When meeting someone who suffers from dementia, be aware that they might not recognize you immediately. Introduce yourself and others by giving the older adult some background information, and gently explain how you are related to them. This can bring back memories that help the adult feel comfortable. It can also create a feeling of security once they have clarity on who is talking to them. A caregiver in the home who is more familiar with the adult may be able to make them feel more comfortable if they seem especially disoriented or frustrated.
3. Pay attention to nonverbal communication.
When communicating with a dementia patient, it’s important to keep in mind that this is someone who means a lot to you. You want to demonstrate that you care about them and the time you spend together and therefore do your best to communicate in a way they can grasp. While words can become a source of frustration, focusing on body language is a helpful tool for getting a message across without having to explain your intent. A caregiver can communicate more effectively by being careful to match their body language and facial expressions to the message being conveyed in their words. It is also important to remember that adults with dementia can still sense emotions, especially if the speaker’s tone doesn't match their words. By focusing on non verbals, we can eliminate confusion, agitation, and anger and also increase the older adult’s cooperation and ability to follow the conversation.
4. Focus on the pace and style of your words.
Long sentences and impressive vocabulary can be confusing or frustrating for someone who struggles with communication. Caregivers should focus on keeping sentences short and pausing frequently so that the older adult can digest the information. Paying attention to the older adult’s facial expressions can often give the speaker valuable feedback on how much they’re following the verbal exchange.
5. Remove distractions to maximize focus.
Staying focused on something when there are distractions around is hard for all of us. For patients with dementia, it’s even harder. We recommend observing the environment or checking in with in-home caregivers to see what distractions can be removed. You can create a calm, quiet environment by simply turning off the TV, setting electronics to silent mode, or asking other people to lower their voices or move to an adjoining room. By taking an objective look around and minimizing overstimulation, you can make it easier for your aging loved one to stay focused on the conversation or the task at hand.
6. Remember that being present is most important.
When visiting someone with dementia, simply spending time with them goes a long way. At a phase when actively connecting with others is a challenge for the patient, having social interactions becomes even more valuable. Therefore, family and friends should consider visits and conversations meaningful to the older person, even when they are not getting such feedback. Practice actively listening to whatever verbal exchange you have with an older adult and let them know you’re listening to their ideas. Nodding and responding in validation gives people the feeling that you are engaged and want to hear more. For a dementia patient who struggles with expressing themselves, these cues are even more beneficial. Family members should also keep in mind that in-home caregiving services can also make the time spent with an elderly loved one more enjoyable, especially if it is becoming challenging to manage essential tasks. You can find additional caregiver resources on our website
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