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How to Successfully Communicate with Dementia Patients

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by Steven Marcus on 3/10/15, 10:01 AM

Dementia is a debilitating disease that progressively affects the brain, resulting in loss of memory and cognitive ability. One of its cruelest effects is the increasing inability to recognize and interact with others, including loved ones. However, the course of this disease varies greatly, and there will be a long period when communication is possible, but requires special consideration to be successful.

communicating with dementia patients

Avoid Frustration On Both Sides

It can be very difficult communicating with a dementia patient, especially if you are unfamiliar with the disease. Often the wrong approach is taken, albeit with the best of intentions. We have a natural tendency to correct people when they are wrong or confused. While this can be appropriate, when dealing with a dementia patient this is not always the case. Being repeatedly made to feel as if they are making mistakes can be distressing for them. It helps to put yourself in their shoes, especially if you find yourself getting frustrated.

Start by making things as easy as possible, with few or no distractions. Talk in a quiet peaceful environment and don’t try to multitask. Talk to them slowly and clearly, and repeat yourself if they have a hard time following along. Facts are problematic for people with this affliction, so try not to get hung up on them when they are not important. It is possible, for example, to have a very pleasant conversation that benefits you both about something that is poorly recollected or completely fanciful. 

Help Them Through A Difficult Moment

Feelings and intent should take primacy over factual accuracy as that is the most difficult thing for them to contend with. If the patient is stuck on remembering something, like a person’s name or the city they were visiting, you can try prompting them, or even guessing if you're not sure. If it’s not critical, try to move the conversation beyond that. They may forget who you are during a conversation. Especially in the earlier stages, these may just be fleeting moments of confusion, and a gentle reminder of who you are may put them back on course. 

Resist Taking It Personally

In the more advanced stages, they may completely mistake you for a person from another time, such as a relative from an older generation that you remind them of.  They may get argumentative with you over things someone else did decades beforehand. Resist the temptation to get upset, and always remember the difficult circumstances they are confronting.

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