Caring for someone living with dementia presents some unique challenges, one of which can be communication. In order to provide the best care possible, it’s essential that you consider your approach carefully, and don’t assume that what works for one person will necessarily work for others. Communication is one of the most vital aspects of dementia care, and doing it effectively can greatly improve someone’s quality of life.
With Dementia Awareness Week taking place in the UK from May 14th-20th, this is the ideal time to raise awareness about the importance of good communication for those living with dementia. To make sure your care team are providing the most effective support possible, follow and pass on these tips about dementia communication.
Perhaps the most essential part of communicating with someone with dementia is ensuring that your tone of voice and manner are warm, friendly and helpful. This is vital for making them feel safe and at home, particularly during the first few weeks of their residency. During this time, it is important to establish a relationship that is built on trust and warmth, and communication is a key part of this. Be careful not to sound patronising or condescending in any way, and also not to be too questioning or confrontational.
If you encounter aggression from someone living with dementia, it’s important to understand that this is due to their illness, and to respond with care and kindness. Learn what their triggers are and what they need when they get upset. Some people need to be reassured and talked to, whereas others prefer to be left alone. It’s important that all caregivers are aware of any triggers and the preferred approach to be taken for each person.
When communicating with someone with dementia, it’s very helpful to set up an environment in which they will feel relaxed and focused. This can be in a communal room or in their own room, but it is essential that there are as few distractions around as possible. People living with dementia can be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, such as noise, smells or images, which can prevent them from being able to concentrate on the conversation. Specially designed activities can also help them to focus and put them in a relaxed state of mind.
It’s a widely known fact that non-verbal communication is just as important as what you say, and this is key when learning how to talk to someone with dementia. Keeping eye contact, smiling and being aware of your body language will all help to make communication easier. Try to keep your body language relaxed and open, as this will communicate to them that you are a friendly and safe person to be around. Non-verbal communication can be particularly important for someone in the more advanced stages of dementia, when it may be the only form of communication available.
Clarity is absolutely essential when caring for someone living with dementia, and there are many ways that you can help someone to better understand their environment and those around them. Just as dementia signage helps people to navigate their surroundings, conversational signage can help people to navigate a conversation. Key conversational signs for someone living with dementia include referring to people by name, instead of using ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’, and sticking to one topic at a time. Be sure to answer questions as clearly as possible and be a good listener by asking for clarification if necessary.
Communicating with someone living with dementia can be challenging at times, but it’s absolutely vital not to get frustrated. Becoming frustrated will only escalate the situation, as the person will likely notice and become frustrated themselves. Instead, listen carefully and allow them to take as long as needed to respond to any questions. If you notice that they are becoming confused or agitated, tell them you can talk about it later if they wish. It’s also a good idea not to quibble or question any inaccuracies, as this can come across as patronising. There isn’t any harm in allowing misstatements to go unquestioned.
We all have good days and bad days, and this is certainly true for people living with dementia. If communication seems to be more difficult at times, remember that they might just be having a bad day, and that on a different day things might be better. Avoid labelling one person as ‘difficult’ or any other negative attribute, as this will affect the efficiency of your care for them. On days when communication is difficult, be particularly patient and careful not to become frustrated or condescending. Remember that everyone needs extra support on their bad days, even though this might be difficult for carers.
The central aspect of dementia communication is to treat each person as an individual, and to get to know them with this in mind. Each person living with dementia is different, and will prefer different styles of communication depending on their personality. Taking an interest in them as an individual and treating them as such is certainly the most important thing to remember when communicating with someone living with dementia, as it will make them feel valued and respected.