Patients with dementia may have difficulty understanding or communicating verbally, communicating when you have dementia, or know a loved one with dementia, can be challenging. There are a variety of ways that you can help yourself or a loved one to communicate more effectively. 

Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is one method of communication that is effective with dementia patients who find conversation too difficult. Non-verbal communication is communicating without the use of spoken words. As dementia progresses, non-verbal communication methods such as using gestures, facial expressions, and body language to communicate may become the primary form of communication. These non-verbal methods can ease the challenges of understanding and communicating with those who are living with dementia. Other methods of non-verbal communication include physical contact such as holding one’s hand or giving a hug. When using non-verbal combined with verbal communication, make sure your facial expressions and voice inflection match. Keep your voice light and add a smile to make the patient feel more comfortable. Employing visual prompts may be useful to better communicate with someone who is having difficulty understanding standard spoken language. Methods such as using cue cards for different activities such as meal times or preferred activities may be effective when combined with other forms of verbal and non-verbal communication. Outlets such as drawing, or singing may also be helpful for patients who struggle with verbal communication.

Encouraging Communication with Dementia Patients

When a patient has dementia, their memory and communication abilities will gradually decrease over time. This can be frustrating for the individual and their loved ones. As dementia progresses, communication will be increasingly difficult, and responses may be shorter, patients may take a longer time to respond. However, there are some ways that loved ones can help encourage communication in patients with dementia. Try to start conversations with the loved one. Be sure to speak clearly and slowly and make eye contact. Make sure to give them time to respond and don’t make them feel rushed to respond right away. Be sure to show acknowledgement to what they are saying, even if it is not relevant to the topic of conversation. If needed, give the person choices or rephrase questions to make them simpler for the person to understand. Use non-verbal forms of communication to help encourage additional communication. It is important to show the person that you are actively listening to them and engage in conversational topics that they initiate. When and if you do not understand what they are saying, repeat it back to them for clarification. Some other useful tips include:

  • Try not to finish their words or sentences for them 
  • Acknowledge what they are saying 
  • Ask yes/no questions 
  • Use facial expressions to encourage a positive communication exchange

Overcoming Communication Challenges with Dementia and Sensory Impairments

Oftentimes, persons with dementia may also have sensory impairments that can affect their ability to communicate effectively. Impairments to vision, hearing, or both are a natural occurrence with aging, but can be an even greater challenge for patients that have dementia. 

There are many different causes for hearing or vision impairment. People with hearing loss have greater difficulty communicating because they may not be able to hear what is being said and therefore may not understand what is going on. This can make it more challenging to participate in conversations, and can cause people to feel increasingly isolated. These tips may be useful to better communicate with patients that suffer from hearing loss as well as dementia. If the patient uses hearing aids, be sure that they are working, turned on, and fits the patient properly before engaging in conversation. If possible, be sure that the patient can see your face to help with lip reading. Speak as clearly and a little slower than normal, but with normal pronunciation and emphasis. Over emphasizing the words can actually make it more difficult for the patient to understand, so try and keep lip movements as natural as possible. In addition, visual prompts or photo cards can help assist the patient in communicating effectively. 

When the patient with dementia is visually impaired, there are additional challenges that they will encounter. Patients with vision loss and dementia are unable to see and understand what is going on around them, and this can lead to increased confusion as well as increased risk of falls or injury.  A person with dementia and vision loss may not be able to pick up on non-verbal cues. Therefore, it is important to be sure that you are communicating with the patient in other ways, these tips may be useful to better communicate with patients that suffer from sight loss. If the person wears glasses, make sure they are cleaned, fit properly, and that they are the correct glasses for the activity. Make sure that you have the patient’s attention before initiating or ending a conversation. Make the patient aware of what you are doing, and describe things the best that you can. If using writing to communicate, be sure to think about the color used for both the background and text, make sure the handwriting or the font is legible, and an appropriate size that the person can see.

What to Expect When Speaking to Someone with Dementia

Communicating can be difficult for patients with dementia and their families. If you are experiencing dementia, it is important to remember to speak at your own pace and take your time. Don’t worry about what other people may think. Try to keep your environment free from distractions and as quiet as possible. Speaking to familiar people like family members or about topics you’re comfortable with may help. If you need something repeated, do not be afraid to ask. If you’re having a difficult time thinking of words, try to use gestures, pictures, or try describing things the best that you can.  

When speaking to someone with dementia, be sure to be patient and kind, and keep finding new ways to encourage communication. Patients with dementia can benefit from speech-therapy services to help train patients and their families on the best ways that they can communicate with each other. Niagara Therapy, LLC offers speech and language therapy for adults. Our trained therapists are experienced working with dementia patients and their families to help encourage new forms of communication and improve the quality of life for patients and their loved ones. Contact Niagara Therapy, LLC to inquire about our speech and language therapy program. 


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