A lot happens to our loved ones after being diagnosed with dementia.
Difficulties in tasks and communicating trickles into every aspect of their lives, including the ability to hold ordinary, every-day conversations. You might find it harder to communicate to your loved ones, who can lose focus partway through talking to you or become confused easily. Even normal chatter can be impacted. This is a heartbreaking thing to experience. Especially since conversations are an important part of preserving our relationships with people.
Yet there are tips to help create a positive conversational experience. This is a short guide to help you have engaging and encouraging conversations with those living with dementia. Giving them a more active role in the conversation, and socially stimulating people; an essential part of slowing the symptoms of dementia.
Before even engaging with someone who is living with dementia – look at the room. Take note if there is anything distracting in the area, like a television or a radio turned on. Objects that will make too much noise. Turn these off or remove them from the area.
Consider the time as well. Ask yourself if you have enough time to spare for the conversation. Is it near lunchtime? And if so, would the person you’re about to talk to be hungry or thirsty without realising it? This could make them irritable or tired when you talk to them and spoil any attempts at conversing. If either one is lacking, maybe it would be best to have a shorter conversation.
Ensuring that your body language is engaged and direct is important. Physically turn so you are facing them and maintain direct eye contact – this will all make sure that you look like you are giving them your full attention. Sometimes, if they are distracted, a light touch on the shoulder can get their attention. However, only do this if you are familiar with them and confident that this physical contact will not be confronting.
Make sure that you have a light and happy facial expression. Smiling will help reassure and calm the person you are talking to, especially if they become frustrated during the conversation.
One-on-one conversations are usually best when talking to a loved one with dementia. This will ensure that you have a greater chance of capturing their attention and ensuring that the conversation is manageable and understandable with time to respond.
If you have a group conversation instead, the discussion may become complicated and hard for them to follow. Don’t put too much pressure on them to keep up with the conversation topics and ensure that you engage them every now and again.
Talk about the things that you know they are interested in. Talk about their hobbies, and stories about their younger years – this can help to bring back happy memories and create a more engaging and cheerful conversation. Ask them the story about a photo in the room or a treasured object, the visual cue can help them orientate the chat and stimulate a pleasant memory.
Using non-verbal cues like pointing or acting out ideas can help get conversation points across and simplify talking points. If you are prepared, you could bring along a photo album to stimulate conversation or a familiar toy from earlier years. However, common objects in the room can serve a similar purpose.
Speak clearly and slowly, with pauses at the end of sentences so that your loved one can fully process what you are saying. Do not raise your voice or yell at them if you think they are being slow to respond, sometimes they may need time to think about a reply.
Using closed-ended questions is also better for engagement. For example, asking someone, “would you like a cheese sandwich for lunch?” is better than asking, “what do you want for lunch?”. The simpler version of the question makes it easier to engage with a person living with dementia who may find the latter question too open-ended and complex.
Avoid using the discussion as a test of how far spread their dementia is. This will put pressure on the performance of the conversation and create tension that they will be able to feel. This is a chat and not an interrogation.
Realise that there will be good and bad days when talking to a loved one with dementia. Sometimes they not be very responsive or engaged with the conversation, and there is nothing you can do about that.
Stick to one idea at a time when talking, and if you are discussing a complex topic, talk about it in smaller segments. Maybe try using the names of places and people instead of pronouns like “he” and “she” to clarify things better. Avoid using slang or turns of phrase. People who are living with dementia tend to regard these are literal and become confused.
It is also important that you refrain from correcting them if they get a fact or remember something wrong. Instead, use this to engage with them. For example, instead of saying “You stopped working at the hospital years ago, remember?” engage and say, “Tell me more about your work”. Correcting them may result in your loved one becoming further confused or frustrated with the conversation, and the aim is to retain a light and encouraging talk.
If you want more information on communicating with someone living with dementia, Alzheimer’s Society is a great source.