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What You Need to Know About How to Communicate with Someone with Dementia

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March 20, 2024 •  Emily Hicks Law, PLLC
Dementia is a progressive disease in which the person you know and love slowly disappears. Here's what you need to know about how to communicate with someone with dementia.

Dementia is a progressive disease in which the person you know and love slowly disappears, and it's difficult to watch and to process.

Some types of dementia move very quickly. Those are often identified as RPD or rapidly progressing dementias that can progress over a number of weeks or months to two to three year. Unlike RPD's, Alzheimers is one form of dementia that progress slower. It can seem that one minute your mom is her normal self, and the next day, she hasn't eaten all day because she simply didn't remember that eating is a normal part of the day. Hard days can make communication difficult for the family and caregivers who have the person's best interests at heart.

Sean McHale, owner and founder of Saint Michael's Home Care, is a local business owner helping families care for their loved one wherever they call home. Maybe it's their home they've lived in for 50 years or it could be an assisted living facility. We had the pleasure of interviewing Sean for segments on Elder Law Hour, and he is a wealth of knowledge!

Today, with the help of Sean's expertise, we are giving you tips and tricks on how to communicate with your loved one with dementia.

Don't "quiz" your loved ones

Sean sees families come in to visit their father, for example, and the first thing they say is, "Do you know who I am?" Other questions could be: What did you eat for breakfast? What is your wife's name?

Questions like this can cause your loved one to withdraw and act nervous because they may not know the answers. One quick tip is to have a stack of name tags by the front door and require visitors to wear a name tag, whether they are friends or family. Your loved one will see the name tag and know who people are!

Try not to say "no" or disagree with them

Disagreements can happen often. The sky is blue and it's 80 degrees, but your loved one says it's raining. It would be tempting to say something like, "No, it's not raining, look outside!" But we encourage you to take a softer approach. Does it matter that it's not raining? What would happen if you said, "ok, it's raining. I better grab an umbrella before I leave!" Sean says, "Their anxiety level is going to go up because in their world, they're right. If you're having an argument between two people and then one person finally says, you know what, I agree with you, then the argument's over." He trains his staff using what he calls therapeutic fibbing in which you can agree with the person but tweak it a bit so that you can accomplish the goal. Maybe that goal is to go to a doctors appointment or to get dressed.

Remember that it's not important to be right. Of course, there are certain times when you might need to press an issue like taking medication or eating, but for the most part, what we think is important, won't be.

Get really good at improv!

Along the lines of not disagreeing with loved ones with dementia, you may have to get really good at improv! So often, they get stuck in a memory or time period in the past. Maybe they are seeing a granddaughter and they are calling her their daughter. Consider playing along. Chances are if the granddaughter leaves the room and returns again, it may dawn on your loved one that it is, in fact, their granddaughter.

Wherever the conversation goes, feel free to "wing it" a bit in order for you both to connect and enjoy the conversation.

If you are having difficulty communicating with your loved one with dementia, know you are not alone. Sean and his team are well trained and can help you care for your loved one.

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