When Dad Has Dementia: 7 Secrets to Better Communication

Alzheimer’s and related dementias (there is said to be more than 50 types) do more than impair memory: they impair communication—and in a big way. There’s no reason to stop communicating, though. If anything, communication with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia will become even more important, but you will need to change the way you approach it.

© F1online/Thinkstock
Secret #1: Make it a priority to engage in “time-limit-free” conversations.
Stop rushing: if it takes a few moments for your father to respond, so be it. Don’t answer for him—no matter how long the delay—because that will only serve to discourage him from speaking up in the future.

Secret #2: Use shorter sentences, and don’t ask more than one question at a time.
This does not mean you should speak to your friend or relative as if you were speaking to a child. Instead, aim for concise thoughts so your listener doesn’t get lost or overwhelmed by your rush of words. Also, look for ways to reframe questions or conversations; instead of saying, “Do you remember when we did this?”—which may cause immediate stress and pressure on the listener’s part—say, “It was so much fun when we did this, right?”

Secret #3: Talking is overrated.
The act of genuine listening communicates so much more than even the most eloquent words. Laugh, cry and smile together, or just enjoy the silence. Watch for non-verbal responses and cues, and try to match your loved one’s emotions. Does your sister seem angry? Upset? Agitated? If so, it could be that the subject is stressful, or the inability to respond the way she’d like to is frustrating. Redirect the conversation accordingly.

Secret #4: Try alternative means of communicating.
Grab a pen and paper, dry erase board, an iPad, cell phone, or laptop. Or play music, which is a tremendously powerful mode of communication (click here to view the viral video of Henry, a man with advanced dementia who was transformed dramatically when given an iPod loaded with his favorite songs). Develop your own language of signs or codes so he can indicate when he’s had enough, or when you truly want to understand what is being expressed but need more information to do so.

Secret #5: Make as many connections as possible, both with your words and your body language.
Maintain eye contact constantly. Hold his hand while he speaks or put your arm around her shoulders. These simple connections will help you both stay rooted in the present and focused on each other.

Secret #6: Be calm, and remember the past.
Get your nerves in check, put your fears aside, and though it’s easier said than done, try to keep your emotions at bay. Think of the individual as he/she was before the disease and talk to him/her as you would have years ago.

Secret #7: Don’t take it personally.
Remember that your loved one’s brain is being attacked, his memories destroyed as a result of the disease. Your father is not purposely avoiding your question, nor has your grandmother blocked an important memory (like your name or your relationship to her) to be hurtful.

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest