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How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

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A happy young woman talking to her older adult mother who is also enjoying the conversation.

Watching your parent or loved one experience the struggles that come with dementia can be difficult for families to navigate. Adjusting and learning how to care for a loved one with dementia can be challenging. At Brooklyn Pointe, we take a comprehensive and holistic approach to memory care living. We value helping families navigate any uncertainty they may have in caring for their loved ones. 

Dementia is a general term for impaired cognitive function. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It can affect an individual’s ability to think, reason, and remember in the disease’s later stages. Symptoms of dementia vary between individuals. The most common symptoms include confusion, memory loss, and personality changes. Therefore, dementia significantly impacts an individual’s communication skills. It can be frustrating for the caregiver and their loved one to communicate with one another. 

Communication skills that can be helpful when talking to a parent or loved one with dementia can include:   

  • Create a positive environment
  • Limit distractions
  • Chat face-to-face 
  • Ask simple questions

Communicating With a Loved One

Dementia can affect an individual’s ability to express themselves and understand what is being communicated. This is why navigating how to effectively speak to a loved one with dementia can be challenging.

It is important to remember a few key things:

  • Not everyone with dementia experiences the same symptoms
  • What works today may not work tomorrow

Communication can be difficult for individuals with dementia due to their trouble retaining short-term information. This can cause our loved ones to become frustrated, anxious, or even angry. An individual’s language abilities are sometimes affected, resulting in difficulty speaking or finding the right word. They may easily lose their train of thought, rely on gestures instead of their words, or speak less often. 

Create a Positive Environment

While it can be challenging to talk to your parent or loved one with dementia, it is important to start on the right foot by creating a positive environment. Your body language is as important as your voice and tone when speaking. Speak gently and slowly, and be expressive! Try not to convey frustration if the attempt at conversation sours. 

If your loved one becomes upset, redirect their focus to a change in subject or environment. For example, suggest walking together to help create a sense of calm. Let your loved one know that you recognize their frustration, as it is also important to engage with their emotions and reassure what they are feeling. For instance, “I can see that you are becoming upset. I’m sorry. Let’s go on a walk.” 

Creating a positive environment may include sharing memories from the past. Individuals with dementia may not have good short-term memory but can recall moments from 20 years ago. It is soothing to reminisce and share memories about experiences that happened decades ago. Sharing photos is a great way to look back on memories. Ask general, open-ended questions when referring to old memories for conversation’s sake. For example, when looking at an old photo you may ask, “How were you feeling in this picture? Tell me more about this picture.”

Limit Distractions 

Limit any distractions while communicating with your loved one, such as surrounding noises or visuals. Try not to have the TV on or music playing in the background. Keep yourself and your loved one the main point of focus. Move to a quiet space if needed. Make sure you have their full attention before speaking.

Chat Face-to-Face 

An older adult woman and her daughter having a serious conversation with each other in a sunlit room

Engage with your loved one by chatting face-to-face. Make sure they can see you and make eye contact. If your loved one is seated, get down to their level to speak with them instead of standing.  Remember to remain patient and calm. Speak slowly and talk with your hands. Using hand gestures and being expressive can help your loved one follow along and stay engaged in the topic of conversation.  

Ask Simple Questions

Ask them simple questions, one at a time. Avoid asking open-ended questions or giving too many choices. Try asking questions in a “yes” or “no” format instead of giving various options. For example, asking, “Can I get you some tea?” instead of, “What would you like to drink, water, tea, or coffee?” This may overwhelm them. When asking a question, be patient and give your loved one a chance to respond.  

Is it Time to Consider Assisted Living?

Due to the nature of dementia and its toll on an individual’s cognitive function, it is in the best interest of your loved one to not be left alone for their health and safety. Many individuals with dementia live full lives at home. However, due to the progressive nature of dementia, this can be subject to change. If caring for your loved one becomes increasingly complicated, there are options for their memory care.

Remember, not everyone with dementia experiences the same symptoms. This is why having a customized approach to a loved one’s care is in their best interest. Additionally, what works today may not work tomorrow. Perhaps you have experienced success with some of the communication tips we’ve highlighted. Be mindful that the same communication approach may not work as successfully every time. This is due to the nature of dementia. If you have questions or are interested in looking into a memory care lifestyle for a loved one with dementia, schedule a tour with Brooklyn Pointe to learn more about senior community living!  

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