This month I’m going to take a break from the series I’ve been doing to talk about talking.  Sometimes it’s hard enough to talk to someone without them misunderstanding what we’re saying.

If you’re trying to talk to someone with dementia, it’s twice as hard (if not more).  But there are certain things that you can do to help the conversation and stop yourself from becoming totally frustrated.

One of those things is to always identify yourself.  It may sound silly, but your loved one may not always remember exactly who you are.  My mother has dementia and gets confused between me and my brother (we look nothing alike).  You should try using language such as “I’m your niece, Sally” or “your other son, Marty.”  Even though a person with dementia may not remember exactly who you are, they know you’re someone personal in their life.

Repeating yourself (over and over again) is another thing that you should be prepared to do.  Someone with dementia likely won’t recall anything you say after a few hours or a few minutes.  This isn’t intentional or meant to frustrate you; it’s just the way it is.

Now, here’s a hard one.  When you do speak, be overly specific and try to keep things simple.  If you want to show someone with dementia where something is, identify that thing by name.  You need to say “here is your hat,” and not just “here it is.”  My mother usually doesn’t remember what she’s looking for so she has no idea what you found unless you tell her.  This also means using short sentences.  With a long, complex sentence or story, they forget the beginning way before you ever get to the end.

That being said, they’re not children.  Do not talk down to them or make things overly simplistic.  Even if they don’t understand what you’re saying, they understand how you’re saying it.  I try to remember that this is my mother, and I will always show her the respect she deserves.

At this point, it may sound obvious, but people with dementia don’t remember things. They’ve lost a great deal of their memory, especially their short term memory.  Saying things like “Don’t you remember?”, “Did you forget?” or “How could you not know that?” isn’t going to help. All it’s going to do is make that person feel frustrated, guilty, and sometimes angry.

One thing that my brother and I have noticed is that our mother hates to be ignored. Just because she doesn’t remember things doesn’t mean that she doesn’t exist.  If I ask my father how Mom is feeling today, she’s very good at reminding me that she’s in the room.  She notices when she’s excluded from the conversation.  When you ignore someone, whether they have dementia or not, it can feel demeaning and undignified.

Lastly, and especially towards the later stages of the disease, don’t rely on verbal communication.  As it becomes harder and harder for them to understand your words, you need to find other ways to communicate with your loved one.  Just your facial expressions, body language, and behavior can say a great deal to the person.  Just because someone might not be able to speak like they could before doesn’t mean you can’t look them in the eye and greet them by name.  Even when my mother is not sure who I am, I walk in, take her hand, and kiss her on the check.  She smiles and relaxes, as she knows she’s loved and safe.