Caregiving: How to Talk to Someone with Dementia

          Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

My mom and dad lived with my husband and me for about five years. Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and my  75 year-old father couldn’t care for Mom’s needs on his own.

One of the hardest things for Dad to understand was that he couldn’t talk to Mom the same way anymore. 

Her mental capacities were slowly regressing. And the situation was complicated by my father’s Asbergerger’s. He simply didn’t understand why talking to Mom a certain way was no longer appropriate.

Actually, many people have a hard time understanding this about dementia. So here are a few suggestions.

1. Facial expression and tone are often more important than what you say.

People with dementia are highly intuitive. They can be easily agitated if they sense frustration in others. Speak in a mediated, even tone. Smile. Think about the way a kindergarten teacher would speak to a frightened child and you’ll get the point.

I often told people that I could quote the phone book to my mother to calm her as long as I spoke kindly and calmly. For a number of years, she lived in a state of mental agitation and fear, and it was difficult to maintain a calm demeanor, but it was crucial to offer her comfort, no matter how I felt.

2. Learn how to enter into your loved one’s reality.

 

Because of my father’s Asberger’s, his responses to Mom were often literal and reality-based. But caregivers must learn to look below the surface. For instance, yes, my mother might be asking to go home to her mother, but telling Mom that her mother was dead wasn’t a good answer.

My mother needed diversion and comfort for her troubled mind. Mom lived in a state of delusion, where the real world no longer existed. Sometimes I had to respond to her there first, then draw her into a new activity.

For instance, “I’m so sorry that you can’t find your mother. Can you tell me about her?” Then I would ask her to join me folding towels or peeling boiled eggs or in some other simple task.

3. Don’t ask you loved one for information. Provide it for them.

 

For instance, when entering a room, I’d often say, “Hi, Mom, it’s Shelly, your daughter.”

Or when people came to visit, I’d always say, “Mom, this is Nathan your grandson and his wife Allison. They brought their two baby boys Gabe and Liam.” This way Mom was relieved of the pressure of having to remember people and events.

TELL them things and allow them to chime in as they feel comfortable. Don’t correct them if their responses aren’t “right.” Right and wrong no longer are important, in the same way that they wouldn’t be if a five year-old was interacting with adults.

4. Speak clearly and slowly in short sentences, and give your loved one time to respond.

Make eye contact and offer simple choices. Use body language to reassure them.

The most important thing is to help those with dementia feel loved and included, just for being themselves.

More tips are included in the appendices of Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey

2 thoughts on “Caregiving: How to Talk to Someone with Dementia

  1. I enjoyed your article, very nice and to the point as well as spot on. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and we had to put her in a locked unit. We were lucky to find a wonderful assisted living program near my farm. My dad came to live with us and we visit my mom on a daily basis. I had to help my dad learn how to “re-connect” and speak to her. Short, direct comments and re-direction helped. I always make sure she looks up and see’s us as she is humped over slightly now. It’s important for me as well. She lights up when she see’s us and that makes my day.

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