In our North Devon and Somerset care homes, we are experts at communicating effectively with those with dementia. However, for you, as a loved one of a dementia sufferer, it isn’t only a bewildering and confusing time for them. The relationship you had with them previously needs to adapt and change. This takes communication, but your previous methods may flounder.
Here are our expert tips for communicating effectively with an individual with dementia so that you relationship is positive and you feel confident.
We’re putting this tip first because it’s absolutely vital. As a loved one with a relative with dementia, this is an unsettling time. But you don’t have to learn these new communication skills by yourself. You can speak to the carers of your loved one about how to communicate effectively. In our specialist dementia care homes in North Devon, our experienced staff will even sit with you both, helping you to navigate communication if you are finding it particularly difficult.
Communication is about so much more than the words we say. Be positive in your body language and tone of voice and it will help instil self-confidence as you get used to this new style of communicating. This will then carry through to the conversation. Smile and this will encourage a sense of happiness and safety.
When talking with someone with dementia, it is particularly important that you stop doing anything else and simply focus on the conversation. This also enables you to hold eye contact which can help the individual to feel secure and listened to. It’s also important that you stay focused on one topic at a time. Try not to jump around from topic to topic but exhaust one before moving on to the next.
As dementia is often associated with later life, it’s no surprise that hearing impairments can pose an additional challenge when communicating with those with dementia. Indeed, those with hearing loss are more likely to experience dementia.
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There are several strategies and tips within this tip alone. These include using hearing aids, talking in a place away from background noise, and having plenty of light showing on your face rather than being in shadow.
The above tip about considering hearing problems will also be helped whilst putting in place this next communication tip: choose your communication setting carefully. By choosing a quiet area where the individual feels safe and secure, and at ease, you’ll find that conversation is easier.
We’ve taken great care to consider the needs of those with dementia in designing and establishing our care home rooms. They feel homely whilst also supporting an individual’s care needs.
An individual with dementia is likely to become easily confused. Therefore, do your best to remove other distractions when you’re trying to communicate with them. For example, don’t try to make them a drink whilst also chatting. Make sure you switch off the television and put your mobile phone away.
Before you start a sentence, make sure that you have the attention of your loved one. You can try starting with their name, or, if they will feel comfortable, holding their hand or lightly touching their arm.
Dementia is progressive. You’ll also find that your loved one has ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days when their sense of confusion and cognitive abilities will seem variable. Therefore, carefully reintroduce yourself each time you see them, before you start further conversation. For example, you may enter the room with a cheerful statement such as “Hello Mum, it is Mary come to visit you.”
It’s also worth remembering this throughout the conversation. Repeatedly use names in preference to pronouns. This will help the individual follow the conversation more easily.
Speak slowly and clearly. It can be helpful to use short sentences and avoid too much extra information. Keep on point and give breaks between sentences. This also allows you to carefully listen and give them time for a response.
Sometimes with dementia, the meaning of words can become jumbled. This can hinder communication. However, you can use non-verbal methods of communication too. For example, you could mime having a drink or eating, or perhaps you might use old photos as prompts to your conversation.
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Often when we look at communication tips we are advised to ask open-ended questions. With dementia this can be a little more problematic. Attempting to answer an open-ended question can be more daunting and bewildering. Therefore, try to limit questions and choices more. For example, rather than asking if they would like you to bring in a treat, you could offer them the choice of two which you know they like.
Your loved one will make mistakes and they will assert things which jar with your understanding of reality or the truth. The trick is to not take these assertions personally and instead choose not to quibble or argue about smaller details. You may also find that you are more successful if you talk about things from your loved one’s past, even their childhood, rather than recent history or the present.
If your loved one seems to keep labouring a particular point, which isn’t consistent with reality (for example, asserting they need to pick up a child from school) consider what the message is, rather than the detail. Perhaps they feel they need an outlet for their caring, or they want to feel useful.
The nature of dementia can automatically cause a power imbalance in conversations. Whilst this is somewhat inevitable, there are ways in which you can limit it. Firstly, always try to sit with your loved one at the same level. Don’t stand over them whilst talking. Secondly, give them time for responses and don’t try to fill the silence. It is normal with dementia for the individual to take a lot longer to bring their thoughts together before speaking.
Whilst your life is busy and your schedule probably limited, your loved one’s days will seem longer. Being in a care home will ensure ample stimulation and conversation, as well as ensuring their care needs are met. This means that visits can focus on genuine communication and connection. Give this time fully to your loved one and try to ensure it isn’t rushed.
It can be particularly useful, before visiting your relative or friend with dementia, to consider some topics that you might talk about. Perhaps you can take along a photo or two from many years ago and see if it stimulates conversation? Alternatively, you could show them their old recipe book, or listen to their favourite music together. Having some topics ready will help you feel confident.
It will take you both some practice to develop a new communication style. Be patient with yourself and with them. Instead of simply repeating something which hasn’t been understood, try to rephrase it, you may get a better response. Don’t talk over them to someone else in the room, but try to include them within the conversation.