Dr. Sandra Petersen is the Senior Health and Wellness Consultant for Pegasus Senior Living. She designed the Connections Program for their memory care communities, focusing on neuroplasticity techniques to slow the memory loss process of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
By having engaging activities guided by trained dementia specialists, residents of the program find structure and purpose in their lives.
Communicating with someone like an aging parent living with a neurocognitive disorder like dementia can be challenging. That’s because one of the hallmark symptoms of dementia, along with memory loss, is difficulty expressing and comprehending ideas, known medically as aphasia.
Aphasia that’s associated with several forms of dementia includes word-finding problems. Individuals with dementia sometimes replace the words they mean with something that sounds similar. When saying “fish,” they may say “find” or replace “book” with “bank.” They also tend to describe things like “the numbers on the wall that tell time” to indicate they’re talking about a clock.
Of course, it can be frustrating learning your parents’ new lexicon, but here are nine tips for success from Dr. Petersen when talking with someone who is living with dementia.
1. Show Respect – No “Baby Talk”
Don’t talk down to the person or treat them like a child; always address them with respect.
Speaking in a high-pitched tone close to the face may be enjoyable for infants and young children, but it’s inappropriate for communicating with adults. Regardless of how much the person with dementia can or cannot understand, you should address them as adults with dignity and honor.
2. Address Them Using THEIR Preferred Name and Title
Learn what the person’s preferred name is and use it. Don’t use terms like “honey, baby, sugar, sweetheart,” or similar terms, as these can come across as demeaning or patronizing. While you may intend it as a sign of affection, it can be confusing to the older adult with cognitive decline — and, even worse, may seem condescending.
A genuine smile can set the tone for positive interaction and reduce the chance of negative behaviors. The person may feel reassured by your non-verbal communication of a warm smile and eye contact, conveying that you are glad to be with them and that communicating with you is pleasant and welcoming.
4. Position Yourself at Eye Level
Individuals with neurocognitive disorders like dementia have a limited field of vision and decreased depth perception, especially as their disease process advances. Bend down or kneel to be at eye level rather than standing up straight and looking down on someone who is seated. This tactic might not be physically comfortable for you, but it will facilitate a more relaxed and respectful conversation with an individual with dementia.
5. Use the Sense of Touch as a Communication Tool
While some people may get defensive if you enter their “personal space,” many appreciate a gentle touch. Knowing how someone responds to physical contact is essential. You might want to give a little pat on the shoulders or hold their hand as you speak with them. Gentle touch can effectively communicate that you care about them and wish to engage with them.
6. Dementia Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Hear
Not every person with dementia has a hearing impairment. Raising your voice can make them feel like you are yelling at them or are upset with them somehow. Use a clear, normal tone of voice to start a conversation with the individual and, if they don’t respond, adjust your volume as needed. Speaking in a slightly lower tone can also be helpful for those who have a hearing problem; individuals with hearing loss may have trouble with high-pitched voices.
7. Speak in Simple, Concrete Language
As cognitive decline progresses, the individual may have a hard time understanding what you are trying to tell them. Thought processes may become very concrete. For instance, using the proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine,” may confuse the person with dementia and send them thinking about sewing up clothes rather than preventing a negative outcome. Proverb interpretation is part of the Mini-Mental Status Exam (MMSE) that is often used to screen for symptoms of dementia.
8. Give Them Time to Process and Respond
If you have a question, give the person a chance to respond before turning to others for an answer; processing slows as dementia progresses. Also, don’t talk about the person as if they’re not there. They might understand more than you give them credit for, so convey your respect by addressing them directly and including them in conversations with others.
9. Keep the Interaction Brief and Meaningful
Limit your questions to just a few and your interaction to less than 20 to 30 minutes. Your goal is to encourage and provide encouragement during the conversation. Those with neurocognitive disorders need validation and purpose in life, just like the rest of us.
Recognizing that makes every interaction an opportunity to convey that the individual is important, loved, and has a unique purpose in life. Practicing the tips above can help make your interactions more meaningful.
Find Care For a Parent With Dementia
Pegasus Senior Living provides relief for families in 12 states around the country. Find a memory care community near you if your loved one lives with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.