Please talk to me – tips for talking to people with dementia

WHILE I believe there is a better awareness of dementia than what there was ten years ago, I’m not so sure we have done as well in increasing the understanding of what dementia is, and isn’t.

We can be aware of a problem but not understand much about it.

Without understanding, it is very hard to respond effectively to an issue or a challenge. So it is with dementia.

We often (sadly) hear from people with dementia that people respond to them differently after their diagnosis.

A diagnosis of dementia can be confronting, and one thing that people with dementia want is to be able to continue to engage with family and friends as much as possible for as long as possible.

We know from recent research that people with dementia are some of the loneliest people in our community.

However, we also often hear from family and friends that they don’t know how best to connect with people with dementia.

How do you support the conversation, navigate around the symptoms of the dementia and ensure your time with your family or friend is helpful or enriching to them?

How do you avoid adding to the confusion or sense of frustration that the person with dementia may be struggling with?

We asked people with dementia these questions.

Here are the five tips they asked that you remember when you spend time with them.

  1. “Please talk to me, not my carer, family member or friend. Don’t prejudge my level of understanding.” All of us value being a participant and being able to express ourselves and make a contribution. Early in childhood we begin to assert our need to be heard personally rather than have someone speak for us.  This is core to our sense of self. This need does not change with dementia.  Be patient with the impacts of the cognitive impairment when you are spending time with the person with dementia.  Talk with them, not about them via another person, no matter how well intentioned they may be.
  2. “Providing information in smaller chunks will help me.”The short term memory can only hold a limited number of items for a limited time in the most highly functioning individuals before it needs to be stored in the long term memory – or forgotten forever.The impairment of short term memory caused by dementia impacts on this capacity to hold information.  Support your conversation with a person with dementia by breaking down information into smaller pieces to allow them to remember it long enough to be able to respond to you.
  3. “Make eye contact and speak clearly, use short sentences, with one idea at a time.  Avoid jargon, as I might not understand.” We know most communication does not rely on words at all.  Body language communicates more than the words being spoken.Eye contact is also a key tool in communication for all people.  For those with impairment in their ability to process words, eye contact and comforting touch becomes even more important in conveying emotion and mood.
  4. “Sometimes it takes a little longer for me to process information and find the right answer.  Don’t rush me, allow me time to speak.”  A person with dementia may not remember what you have said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.  You have the capacity to leave the gift of a sense of belonging or warmth or connection when you spend time with a them.  Don’t be impatient.  Allow your patience to support the time being spent together.
  5. “Less noise and fewer distractions, such as bright lights, will help me to focus.” Noisy, busy, bright places increase the amount of stimuli to be processed, competing for attention as we seek to listen and respond to what others are saying.  And that is so for those of us who are able-bodied.  Imagine how that busy stimulus increases the level of difficulty for a person with dementia.  Reducing the competing stimuli will be very supportive of your interaction and of the person with dementia’s ability to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from spending time with someone who cares.

Like the rest of us, people with dementia need the social and emotional benefit of spending time with others.

Remember these tips and you and they will both be rewarded.