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How to Talk to Someone With Dementia

Fonthill House, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Dementia is a progressive illness that sadly affects a person’s ability to communicate. It can be difficult to decide how best to talk to someone with dementia, especially those dealing with the later stages of the illness. To help make things easier, we’ve put together some useful tips on how to talk to someone with dementia.

How does dementia affect someone’s ability to communicate?

Dementia can affect parts of the brain that control language, meaning that it affects a person’s ability to hold or follow a conversation. The most common communication difficulties caused by dementia are:

  • Not being able to find the correct words or using substitutes 
  • Using words in the wrong order 
  • Not being able to focus on the conversation
  • Repeating sentences or subjects 
  • Using incoherent or unintelligible speech 
  • Taking longer to process information and respond

How to speak to a person with dementia

Before you begin speaking to someone with dementia, it’s important to prepare the environment first. Being in a busy or noisy place can make it even harder for someone with dementia to focus on the conversation. Make sure to find a quiet, calming area with no background noise or distractions. 

When it comes to beginning the conversation, try using short, simple sentences. It’s important to be as clear as possible, keeping your voice calm and steady. Try to pick topics of conversation that will interest the person and keep them engaged.

 

In addition, try not to rush the conversation and instead give the person time to respond. There may be some long pauses, which might feel awkward, but it’s important not to speak over the person and to instead allow them to respond in their own time. 

If the person doesn’t understand what you’ve said, try phrasing it in a different way or using real-life prompts, such as pointing at an object, to help make things clearer. It’s okay to smile or laugh together about any misunderstandings, but make sure not to come across as patronising or hurtful. It can feel extremely frustrating to struggle with communication, so it’s important to remain patient and supportive. 

How to listen to a person with dementia

When you’re having a conversation with someone who has dementia, being able to listen carefully is key. The person might struggle to find the correct words, but listening out for clues or thinking carefully about what they might be trying to say can really help to keep the conversation flowing. 

Offering verbal or non-verbal encouragement while you’re listening can also help give the person the confidence to continue talking. Things such as nodding your head or keeping eye contact can show that you’re actively listening and engaged in what they have to say. 

You can also carefully watch their body language and facial expressions to get a better understanding of how they’re feeling. Examining their body language is a good way to check if they still appear comfortable having the conversation or if they are feeling frustrated.

What not to say to someone with dementia

Having a positive conversation with someone who has dementia can really help to lift their spirits and create a sense of connection. So to avoid ending the conversation on a negative note, there are some phrases that are best not to use.

Firstly, try not to say phrases such as “I’ve just told you that” or “you already said that”. Repetition is likely to happen when you’re conversing with someone who has dementia, but showing any frustration will only make them feel upset or belittled. 

Another phrase to avoid is “do you remember me?” Those in the later stages of the condition may struggle to recognise even close family or friends and, of course, this can naturally be upsetting. However, asking the person if they know who you are can make them feel frightened, confused or guilty if they can’t remember. 

Finally, try to avoid using open-ended questions. Questions such as “what did you do yesterday?” can cause someone with dementia to feel stressed, if they can’t remember. Instead, focus on the present moment and pick questions that have a more definite answer. 


For more information on communicating with someone who has dementia, you can visit the NHS website. Or, if you’re interested in the specialist care services we offer here at Fonthill House, feel free to get in touch

Judi Dench

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