Two people are sitting in a fall park. The lady with shoulder-length dark curly hair has her head lovingly resting on the man with the grey hair's shoulder

Dementia is a generalized term for a series of illnesses. They affect an individual’s memory, personality, thinking abilities, reasoning skills, mood, physical abilities, behaviour, and their ability to communicate effectively to the point that it interferes with their daily life.

Dementia is a complex disease; research and treatments evolve continuously so scientists and physicians can find better answers and techniques on how to manage it. Keeping up with new data is thus vital for care.

Here at Integracare, we’re proud to say that we are the only private home health care in Toronto and Mississauga area to provide every single one of our Caregivers training on the five facets of Dementia care on a monthly basis. We use the most up-to-date Dementia Care education tools, and the most current recommended treatment methods.

Caring for someone who’s living with Dementia is a life-changing, rewarding and incredibly selfless gesture. It can also, at times, be challenging. Staying strong, remaining stoic, and putting on a united front while seeing someone you love and care about live through the stages of the disease can be devastating.

Communication is a core part of being human. It’s a way for everyone — including those living with Dementia — to express their needs, pass on knowledge and feedback, participate in society, and feel valued. That’s why formulating, researching and forward-thinking on an effective strategy for communicating with people living with Dementia in your care is so crucial.

As discussed, continuing education is incredibly important to us at Integracare. This is not just to equip our team but also our community members; it is important to reach as many Caregivers as possible to make life for individuals living with Dementia easier and better understood.

Because effective communication is one of the key fundamentals of Dementia Care, today we are sharing effective and compassionate tips on how to communicate with people living with Dementia in your life.

Two Seniors sitting at the door of a beautiful red brick building in an immaculately landscaped garden

Why Does Dementia Affect Communication?

Struggles with both language and speech are common symptoms of Dementia. Generally speaking, these challenges arise because of neurodegenerative processes and nerve cell failure — though the specifics of the cause will vary based on the type of Dementia.

How Does Dementia Affect Communication?

When considering Dementia and communication strategies, it’s important to see communication as both language — how we translate ideas into words for communication — and speech, or the physical motor performance of language. Difficulties related to communication are one of the early signs of Dementia. The illness can affect individuals differently based on their type of illness and as the stages advance.

At Integracare, we understand that Dementia and communication strategies vary intimately between individuals. We offer a free in-home assessment for each of our Clients so that we can better understand both their needs and their personalities. This assessment ensures they receive the care they need and that the Caregiver they work with is perfectly suited to them.

How a Person’s Communication with Dementia May Change

A person living with Dementia will gradually experience degrees of communication decline as the illness progresses. Communication challenges will vary between individuals.

Memory loss — which leads to communication challenges — is one of the early symptoms of Dementia. With this in mind, if you’re considering professional at-home care, we recommend connecting Integracare in the early stages of the diagnosis. This way, the individual living with the illness can be directly involved in their care plan.

So, how does Dementia affect communication? There are a variety of ways it might affect an individual’s communication abilities, including the following symptoms:

  • Repetition of words, sentences, or asks.
  • Faltering ability to present logical ideas and to reason clearly.
  • A limited or pared-back vocabulary.
  • Challenges in finding words, sometimes with nonsensical substitutions in their place.
  • Reverting to a first language when this ordinarily wouldn’t have been the norm.
  • Difficulties in following, maintaining, or contributing to a conversation.
  • A lessened interest in starting a conversation and with limited topic choice when the mood does strike.
  • Confused or unusual conversations.
  • Challenges in following conversations or requests that have several points (like instructions or directions).

How to Communicate with People Living with Dementia

Ultimately, Dementia and communication strategies require a personalized plan that considers personal needs; communicating with people living with Dementia will always vary from individual to individual.

Here, we have detailed some effective communication techniques for people living with Dementia and their Caregivers.

Consider the Surrounding Environment

Noise can cause stress and distraction for those living with the illness, making sounds an unnecessary hurdle when attempting to communicate.

To minimize distress, try to keep a calm environment with minimal distractions and disturbances. Doing so will allow the person you’re communicating with to focus as best they can.

Some ways to effectively implement this when communicating with someone living with Dementia:

  • Mute the television or turn the volume down (but know that if a familiar show is on, it can be of comfort).
  • Lower the radio’s volume, but keep it switched on: soft and gentle music can be soothing.
  • Brighten the space. Dim light can be distressing or distracting. Try to optimize natural light and use bright wattage bulbs where possible. This is especially important in home health care for Seniors where vision may be faltering. Limiting distractions like obscured or limited vision will allow the conversation to flow as naturally as possible when implementing effective communication techniques for people living with Dementia.
  • Close or lower the windows if there’s excessive outside noise.
  • Hang noise-absorbing curtains and lay down a soft, noise-buffering rug.

An up close photo of seniors holding hands atop a dark wooden table.

Initiate Conversation

When you’re communicating with someone with Dementia, it’s quite common to notice that their ability to start discussions or make conversation has diminished. This is partly because their ability to find their words and process information has been reduced, or they simply forget what they want to say.

Over time, this will take an emotional toll on the person dealing with the illness. In addition to the above challenges, people living with Dementia diagnoses may simply begin to stop trying to make conversation through embarrassment or frustration.

Because of these reasons, it’s imperative to continue instigating conversation to keep the brain active and the person involved, engaged and valued; doing so will continue the maximum feeling of normalcy for as long as possible.

Use Body Language as a Tool

As discussed, it’s crucial to minimize distress for those living with Dementia. Because of this reason, always approach the person from the front (where possible) to avoid surprising them.

Use physical cues before starting a conversation, such as touching the person’s hand or calling their name.

When you’re communicating with people living with Dementia, maintain eye contact. In everyday life, we hold some degree of eye contact while conversing with others; don’t let this habit drop. Maintaining as much regularity as possible is key since doing so allows the person to feel respected and valued.

Use expressions wisely during your conversations. Suppose you’re relaying good news, smile encouragingly. On the other hand, don’t scowl or furrow your brow if you’re agitated, as this can cause distress. Facial expressions can tell a whole story, so use them as a tool in your communication with people living with Dementia.

Use gentle touch by means of encouragement. A gentle pat on the knee or a comforting squeeze of the hand can provide reassurance. The human touch also creates a level of comfort.

Converse Strategically

When you are communicating with someone living with Dementia, it’s important to alter your regular speech patterns. As Dementia advances, the brain struggles to keep up with and process information. Making accommodations will reduce frustrations as well as keep the brain active.

Some ways in which you can converse strategically are to:

  • Use primary language with pared back word choices. Use consistent words for everyday acts (e.g., consistently offer ‘dinner,’ and don’t flip between dinner, supper, or tea).
  • Keep sentences short and to the point. Be patient and await a response. If you don’t receive one, that’s okay. Don’t pressure the person to respond; instead, proceed as normal.
  • Speak slowly and leave ample room for answers. As discussed, it can take longer for those living with Dementia to follow a conversation. By speaking slowly, you’re allowing time for them to process the information and formulate a response and have a more pleasant interaction.
  • Try not to patronize when you’re communicating with people living with Dementia. While this might seem like something you’d never see yourself doing, it’s easy to answer on behalf of other people who may be struggling, and all under the good intention that you’re helping them. Allowing someone living with Dementia to answer for themselves maintains their feeling of independence, pride and freedom.
  • Similarly, it’s of utmost importance to talk to the person when they’re in the room with you and to not talk about them as though they aren’t there. This is especially important when you’re chatting with medical professionals; it’s crucial that the person has the opportunity and time to express any concerns they may have without feeling distressed.

Think Outside the Box

While verbal and physical communication is essential, they aren’t the only effective communication techniques for people living with Dementia. There are times when props might also be helpful.

If an individual struggles to find a word or describe something, have a notepad on hand. Drawing or writing a word down can be easier for some people.

Similarly, flashcards might be useful. Cards that showcase a cup of tea, a hairbrush or remote control (for example) may reduce feelings of frustration, especially as the illness progresses and you’re retooling your strategies and your Dementia communication techniques.

Try out basic forms of sign language, too. Learning new skills and keeping the brain active is one of the ways to slow the progression of Dementia. During the early stages of the diagnosis, implement basic sign language for intentions, feelings, or activities. This can be as simple as making a ‘T’ sign for a cup of tea.

Two people are looking through a book. The senior lady is pointing at a page

Some Areas to Avoid

Living with and attempting communication with those living with Dementia can be frustrating, tiring and isolating for all parties. While we’ve covered a few things that you shouldn’t do, we also wanted to reiterate how to navigate some situations or instances that may arise.

Try to avoid showing feelings of anger or irritation both verbally and through your facial expressions. For example, if you receive a text message that spurns a negative emotion, try to keep cool and move on.

During communication with people living with Dementia, be it in-person or on the phone, try to avoid arguments or confrontations. A symptom of Dementia might be poor judgement and reduced problem-solving abilities. This is worth keeping in mind in the early stages of the diagnosis when you may not understand the full complexities of the illness and might misconstrue forgetfulness as nonchalance or indifference.

When you’re learning how to communicate with someone living with Dementia, try not to jump in and fix an error or a mistake made by the person. Instead, give them time to troubleshoot for themselves. Doing this creates a greater level of normalcy and fosters a stronger feeling of pride when the person can reach a desired result on their own.

Also, go easy on yourself. Seeing someone you care about living with an illness like Dementia is bound to take an emotional toll, leaving room for anger, sadness and even denial. Try to keep your cool and be patient. Take a break or step outside during moments of frustration.

Finding what works for you and your loved one in establishing and honing your Dementia communication strategies takes time. By working on your communication skills and refining your knowledge of the illness, you’re directly improving the quality of life for the person in your charge. Maximizing the potential for positive interactions helps those living with Dementia to feel valued, comfortable and still like the person they were in their best years.

Call Us for Assistance and Support

If someone you know has recently received a Dementia diagnosis and you have questions about Dementia, or if you’d like to learn about our Dementia Care, connect with us today.

We offer round-the-clock care for Seniors living with Dementia. Our highly trained and educated team members work with our Clients directly and will assist with any communication challenges (and other symptoms of Dementia) with composure, compassion and lived experience.

Seeing a person that you love lose their ability to connect and communicate as they once did is heartbreaking. But know that you’re not alone. Contact us to discuss how we can deliver expert at home Dementia Care in Toronto and provide whatever assistance is most appropriate for your situation.