9 tips for communicating with those living with dementia

Libby Palmer from Dementia Australia recently spoke with volunteers about how to better communicate with people living with dementia.

  1. Check their hearing and eyesight
    Sometimes a person with dementia doesn’t respond because they can’t hear or see you properly. It’s handy to take a little cloth in your pocket or purse and clean their glasses, because often they get dirty and they don’t realise that’s why they can’t see properly. Also check their hearing aids to make sure they are working, they are switched on, aren’t whistling or the batteries aren’t flat.
  2. Be aware of body language and tone
    When cognitive abilities such as the ability to reason and think logically deteriorate, a person with dementia will communicate differently. 55% of how we communicate is body language, 38% is the tone and pitch of our voice, and only 7% is the words we use. This highlights how careful we should be in how we talk to those with dementia. Negative body language such as sighs and raised eyebrows can easily be picked up.
  3. Wait 5 seconds for a response
    Often people think a person with dementia hasn’t heard or understood them, but it may take them longer to process what you have asked them. A good rule is to wait five seconds for a response after asking them a question. It can seem like a long time in our busy lives, but taking that extra time gives the person time to understand what you’ve said and form a response. Quite often you will get a response and will not have to keep repeating yourself.
  4. Remain calm and talk gently
    If you come to visit a person with dementia and you are stressed about something that’s happened to you, they will pick up on that. Take a deep breath and count to 10, and then walk in. Your body language and tone will be much more relaxed.
  5. Keep sentences short and simple
    Focus on one idea at a time and speak simply, without being condescending. For example, greet them and say “We’re going on the bus today”, instead of saying “We’re going on the bus, and then there will be a barbecue, and then we are going to the park”.
  6. Avoid competing noises
    The environment you are in can contribute to how well you communicate with a person with dementia. Avoid trying to compete with background noise such as TVs and radios. However, don’t turn them off without asking their permission. Also stay still while talking as it will make it easier for them to follow what you are saying, and stay in the person’s line of vision.
  7. Don’t argue
    Nobody will ever win an argument with a person with dementia. If they say the pen is blue when it is red, you can say ‘I’m pleased the pen is working’, rather than ‘Can’t you see the pen is red?’. To them it is blue.
  8. Be aware of the questions you ask
    Don’t ask a lot of direct questions that rely on a good memory. However, you can be specific in your questions. “Are you in pain?” is a very broad question. It would be better to ask, “Do you have a headache?”.
  9. Maintain dignity and respect
    Giving orders such as “Put your shoes on, we’re going out”, is not respectful. Find another way to get them to put their shoes on. It’s also important not to tell them what they can’t do. Instead, suggest to them things they can do.

For more information you can download a help sheet from Dementia Australia’s website.