How to Talk to a Loved One with Dementia
by J’Nel Wright
Does the following sound familiar? Bill always looked forward to greeting his grandmother after school. But when Grandma no longer recognized him and even threatened to call the police, Bill and his family realized they needed to change the way they communicated with and cared for her.
The Alzheimer’s Association reports that almost six million Americans currently suffer from some form of dementia. Challenges with reasoning, memory, and communication are common symptoms. But when facing changes in a loved one’s behavior, we may feel frustrated or unsure as to how to interact. Do you confront them about their irrational behavior or simply play along to keep the peace?
Although every family is different, experts agree there are three approaches to consider when interacting with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Maintaining a meaningful relationship amid irrational behavior has its challenges. For example, you know there aren’t fish swimming in Grandma’s iced tea glass, but she is convinced otherwise. Before it gets too heated, ask yourself: Are you arguing because you need your loved one to understand or because you feel frustrated? “Try not to argue,” says author and aging expert Carol Bradley Bursack. “Sometimes we have to accept that all we can do is, well, accept.”
Based on her personal experience caring for her father, who suffered from dementia, Bursack recognized that practicing loving validation rather than forcing honesty sustained lasting value in her relationship. “Why should I, a person who supposedly can use their brain, make his life miserable by continually telling him he is wrong? Going with the flow was not hurting anyone else, and it was making Dad’s life a little more bearable,” said Bursack.
With early and moderate stages of dementia, loved ones will struggle with verbal communication. “A person with dementia may have difficulty explaining something or finding the right words to express themselves,” said Healthline.com health writers Valencia Higuera and Mary Ellen Ellis. Instead of using open-ended questions, caregivers should ask “yes” or “no” questions. Experts at the Alzheimer’s Association added that caregivers should engage in one-on-one conversations when possible and try to eliminate noise and distractions when talking.
The important thing is to shift from relying on verbal cues to a more supportive and effective non-verbal communication. And here’s why: “Many people revert to the language they first learned as children,” point out experts at dementiacarecentral.com, which means they sometimes confuse the meaning of common words. “In later stages, this small set of repetitive language may turn into a babble of language, to the point that they can really no longer express what they want or need with words.” To better understand a loved one’s needs, caregivers can point to things or present one-word multiple choice options. For example: “Do you want to eat the banana or the muffin?”
“Non-verbal behaviors such as looks, head nods, hand gestures, body posture, or facial expression provide a lot of information about interpersonal attitudes, behavioral intentions, and emotional experiences,” say researchers at the National Institutes of Health. “Therefore they play an important role in the regulation of interaction between individuals.” They added that non-verbal cues remain effective even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, stating that patients still produce signals and are responsive to others.
It’s painful to watch a person you’ve known for so long become like a stranger to you. But, stay the course. This is a time when your love and support is most needed. And adapting new ways to communicate may uncover a surprisingly rewarding—albeit painful—dimension to your relationship. “A caregiver’s physical presence may be appreciated long after words no longer make sense or even after the person with dementia no longer recognizes people around him,” say researchers at dementiacarecentral.com. Whether a caregiver connects by touch, a tender tone, or through singing a childhood song, a loved one will respond in his or her own way.
By avoiding arguments, adjusting verbal communication to non-verbal cues, and committing to unconditional support, the relationship shared with a loved one suffering from dementia will remain strong regardless of ongoing change.
Original artwork by Jackie S-L from Devon England (https://www.deviantart.com/jacksl/journal/jackie1607-627267579).
J'Nel Wright is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in topics concerning health and wellness, aging, caregiving, humor, travel and business. Her work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications. Her educational background includes a bachelor's degree in English and Social Work. She has traveled throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Mexico and much of the United States. She is a full time writer.