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5 Tips for Talking to a Parent With Dementia

If you have a parent with dementia, you may have noticed a change in their communication skills. Dementia affects receptive and expressive language, so carrying on a conversation may not be as easy as it used to be. Your parent’s level of communication can change from day to day and even from hour to hour, so conversations can be unpredictable.

Communicating with someone with dementia isn’t impossible, though. You can have great, meaningful conversations with your senior loved one if you adjust some of your communication habits. Knowing how to talk to a parent with dementia is one of the most important skills you can develop as you care for an aging loved one. Here are five communication strategies for dementia:

1. Use Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool for anyone, but it can be especially important for people with dementia. It includes all behaviors beyond language that send a message. Here are some of the most common forms of nonverbal communication:

  • Smiles and other facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Nodding or shaking head
  • Posture
  • Hand gestures
  • Tone of voice
  • Physical touch

Everyone constantly sends out nonverbal messages of either ease or discomfort. Becoming aware of your nonverbal messages takes time, but when you’re communicating with your parent with dementia, try to smile and make eye contact. Avoid actions like pointing your finger, which can seem accusatory, and crossing your arms over your chest, which makes you look withdrawn.

Good nonverbal communication can put your parent with dementia at ease and can help make your communication more clear. In advanced dementia, seniors may lose their language comprehension, so they rely on nonverbal cues to understand what you’re communicating.

You should also pay close attention to your parent’s nonverbal messages. Dementia can make it difficult to find words, but your parent’s facial expression, body positioning, and gestures may give you clues as to what they’re trying to say when their language is unclear.

2. Don’t Start or Continue Arguments While Talking to a Parent With Dementia

Older adults are typically set in their ways. If they have believed something or acted in a certain way for decades, debating with them now probably won’t cause them to change. You may not see eye-to-eye on everything with your parents, and you won’t understand all of their choices. This can be frustrating, but accepting disagreements will make your interactions much easier.

This is especially true when it comes to seniors with dementia because they can easily become confused. Delusions and paranoia are both common in dementia and can play a role in their words and actions, too. Arguing with a loved one with dementia will go nowhere, but it can be distressing for everyone involved.

Try to choose your battles with your parent. Consider whether there’s any harm in disengaging and letting them continue to believe what they believe. In most cases, walking away from an argument with someone with dementia will prevent confusion, frustration, and stress for both parties.

3. Talk About One Topic at a Time

Maintaining a conversation can be difficult for people with dementia because of language comprehension issues. Keeping the discussion focused on one topic is one of the most important communication strategies for dementia. By only speaking about one thing at a time, you’re more likely to achieve a meaningful conversation.

You may have to slow down and think carefully about what you say when you talk to your parent with dementia. If you think of something unrelated to say, wait until the current topic of conversation has run its course.

4. Ask Questions Carefully

Giving too many choices or asking vague questions can be confusing for people with dementia. Your parent may have a hard time coming up with an answer to a question on their own, so either-or questions or questions with clear answers will be more effective for maintaining conversation.

For example, your loved one with dementia may not be able to answer the question, “What would you like for dinner?” Instead, you can ask, “Are you in the mood for spaghetti or chili?” This still gives them some control, but they don’t have to come up with an idea out of nowhere.

Ask one question at a time, and give your parent plenty of time to answer. Speech and language may not come as easily as they once did for your parent, so they may need extra time to put their answer into words and articulate it. Don’t finish their sentences for them or make assumptions about their answer. This can cause miscommunication, and it can make your parent feel like you’re not listening.

Also, try to avoid quiz questions like, “Don’t you remember?” Your parent with dementia may feel overwhelmed and upset if they can’t recall the event you’re asking about. Reminiscing can be very meaningful for people with dementia, but it’s important to recognize the difference between reminiscing and quizzing your parent. If you want to talk about a specific memory or event, describe it to them and turn it into a conversation.

5. Accept Silence

It’s normal to feel uncomfortable during a lull in conversation. Most people dislike silence and will scramble to find something to say. However, speaking with someone with dementia requires a different perspective on silence.

Moments of silence are normal in conversations with adults who have dementia. As long as you stay at ease, this silence can be calming for your parent. It also gives space for your parent to process the conversation and think of something to say. Overall, the pace of the conversation will likely be slower than what you’re used to, but it will feel comfortable for your parent. Remind yourself to slow down and let your loved one take their time.

Communicating with someone with dementia can be difficult. The conversation won’t always be straightforward, and it may be tough to phrase things in a way your loved one with dementia will understand. The more you practice, though, the easier and more natural it will feel.

What’s most important is that you keep trying to talk with your parent. Communication is so important for seniors with dementia. Even if dementia has caused your parent to lose most of their language skills, speaking to them is a great way to engage with them and show them your love. Communicating with your parent is also important for your own mental health during this difficult time.

If your loved one has dementia and is having a hard time communicating, they may benefit from working with a counselor. Therapy can help older adults with dementia deal with feelings of depression and anxiety, maintain their language skills, and improve their quality of life. The therapists at Blue Moon Senior Counseling specialize in working with older adults, so they understand the unique communication challenges seniors sometimes face. Reach out to us today to learn more about senior counseling.

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