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How To Change Your Communication as Your Loved One’s Dementia Progresses

A grandchild laying on a bed with a grandma looking at photos together

When you find out about a loved one’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, you may wonder if life will ever be the same again. As you go through this journey together, you’ll discover that each day brings new challenges, and some are more difficult than others. Experiencing a decline in communication skills is one of the most frustrating aspects of the condition for someone with dementia. The good news is, there are ways to lift the burden so you can communicate better.

The ways you approach communication with someone who has dementia may change over time, but you can connect in meaningful ways. Consider making incremental changes to your own verbal and nonverbal communication style to adjust to your loved one’s changing needs as they move through the stages of dementia.

Dementia Takes a Toll on Communication

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can have devastating effects on your loved one’s cognitive and communication abilities. Losing the ability to effectively communicate can be very frustrating for the person with dementia and their family. The first signs of memory loss may happen gradually, with your loved one forgetting a few words, misplacing names, or having difficulty maintaining a conversation. Over time, problems with communication may become more frequent and noticeable.

Learning how to effectively communicate with someone with dementia can help you maintain a loving and supportive relationship with your loved one over time.

Communication Barriers by Stage

Early Stage

In the early stages of dementia, your loved one may realize that communication isn’t as easy for them as it has been in the past. They may forget words, lose their train of thought, or have trouble concentrating on a complex topic. You may notice more repetition in their speech, such as repeating the same story multiple times or asking a question repeatedly. When family members begin to notice these issues, a person with dementia might ignore or try to hide their errors because they don’t want to lose control of their life.

Be inclusive. Helping your loved one stay engaged in conversations can help them keep their communication skills sharper for longer. However, conversing about what happened today or this week can become increasingly difficult as a person’s short-term memory worsens. You might choose topics that your loved one easily recalls from long-term memory, such as asking about their childhood or family memories.

Remove obstacles. Look for ways to make communicating with your loved one easier. Make sure your loved one can easily see your face and hear your voice when you’re having a conversation. Eliminate distractions like a TV or radio, and minimize unnecessary phone alerts or background noise. Call your loved one on the phone at a time of day when they have the most energy.

Moderate Stage

It’s common for a person with dementia to struggle more to keep up with conversations at this stage. They may withdraw from social situations or avoid talking on the phone. Their vocabulary begins to narrow, which explains why it’s harder to find the right words, and they may replace forgotten words with made-up ones. You may see your loved one struggle with following directions or performing simple tasks in the right order.

Speak clearly. Make it a habit to speak clearly and slowly when spending time with your loved one, and remind others to do the same. Keep conversations short, simple and to the point. In many cases, it’s helpful to ask questions that require only simple yes/no answers. When you can’t get through with words, try using movement or gestures to convey a message. 

Offer support. Approaching challenging situations with patience and understanding brings positive energy to the people around you, including your loved one with dementia. Resist the temptation to correct or argue; instead, listen closely for clues about intended meaning. 

Severe Stage

Your loved one is likely to be limited to very basic conversation as the symptoms of dementia progress. They may forget loved ones’ names and other important details. Although they will require help with every aspect of personal care, they may be unable to communicate their needs. 

Use nonverbal cues. When verbal communication isn’t working, body language can be an effective strategy for communication. You can also engage the senses to help communicate through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.

Convey emotion. Even when you can’t grasp the specific words a loved one is trying to express, you can pick up on the emotion or meaning. Remember that a loving embrace or a warm smile is a universal language when other forms of communication fade away.

End Stage

Your loved one may be limited to nonverbal expression only at this stage. They may be unable to respond or recognize familiar people, places or objects.

Offer reassurance. People with dementia benefit from the reassurance of spending time with people who care about them, even if they don’t seem to recognize or acknowledge visitors.

Find Additional Support for Your Loved One

Effective communication strategies can help you navigate through the different stages of dementia with greater confidence and compassion. Parkwood’s expert Memory Care providers can give you and your loved one peace of mind. From our cozy and secure environment to music and art therapy, we’re passionate about our person-based approach to Memory Care. Schedule a visit today to tour our health care center.

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