Top 3 tips for better communication with Dementia patients
The ravages of Dementia and Alzheimer’s are never more apparent than when someone we love becomes difficult to talk to and understand. This heartbreaking situation worsens when loved ones become angry, verbally abusive, and overly confused and agitated due to their inability to clearly explain what they want, need or feel.
I found the following 3 tips very helpful when my Mom became easily confused and therefore frightened by the world around her and she could no longer put her feelings or wants into words. When I applied these tips, we both relaxed a bit and communication became easier. My ability to get a better idea of what she was trying to tell me increased and when she felt she was being heard she wasn’t as frustrated. There is no quick fix or permanent remedy for our loved ones losing the ability to communicate but the following strategies can make a positive difference.
There is nothing like a good listener. I know how wonderful it is to be able to talk to someone who really listens to what I say with respect and enthusiasm. Having someone truly interested in what you have to say is empowering, soothing and calming. Imagine for a moment someone with dementia who feels isolated, panicked and confused. Having someone calmly pay close attention to what they are saying or trying to say would allow them to feel heard and therefore less frightened. When my mom would become agitated and upset for what appeared to be no reason, I learned to ask how she was doing and really listen to the answer. If the answer made no sense, I would try and listen in other ways. I would stop and see if she was in pain, if she was hungry or tired, or if anything that was happening around her would cause her to be upset or agitated. I could then make the appropriate adjustments to see if she felt better.
Listening by observing is a powerful way to communicate. People know and feel on many different levels when you are truly interested in what they have to say. Communication, although a two-way street, begins with a sincere desire to listen to each other. Being patient, kind and open when someone struggles to communicate makes their efforts feel respected and worthwhile. Everyone wants to be heard and respected no matter what the situation is.
2. Use the right tone of voice
So often it doesn’t matter what we say but how we say it. Our tone of voice communicates so much more than what we are actually saying. People suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s are super sensitive to the tones behind our words. Even though they might not understand those words, they can feel and resonate with the emotion of the tone of voice.
Often we are not even aware that frustration or anger or annoyance are being communicated by our tone of voice, even though we are saying something completely harmless or seemingly simple. Becoming aware of our tone of voice and making sure we are using a warm, friendly, and loving tone when we speak to everyone insures a calm, gentle environment and helps avoid tension and agitation. Using a tone that is authentic, calm and compassionate allows us to communicate a positive and comforting mood even if the actual words and thoughts are not comprehended.
3. Don’t argue, don’t correct
I have learned so much by asking myself the simple question “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” This question has helped me avoid arguments time and time again. By asking ourselves this question we can put things in perspective and prevent needless confrontation. When communicating with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, the need to be right, win an argument or make a point is completely unnecessary and can create useless and upsetting conflict.
The same holds true with the need to correct our loved ones when they are mistaken or confused. It’s pointless to force them to try and understand or agree with us. Instead, we can acknowledge what they are saying and re-direct their concerns or observations by agreeing, saying we understand, or by using kind phrases with enthusiastic tones such as “Is that right?,” “You don’t say,” or “I didn’t know that!” If they are expressing anger or fear we can simply say “I’m so sorry, how can I help?”
Changing the subject or diverting their attention to something else that pleases them or makes them happy can also work wonders. Rather than engage in an argument or make them feel insecure or defensive we can introduce a favorite topic or bring up a pleasant memory that encourages them to feel safe and happy.
I know when I feel that I am being heard and acknowledged, I feel encouraged and validated. While we may not always be able to understand or communicate they way we wish with our loved ones, our patience, our tone of voice, and our ability to accept and surrender to the limitations we may face will guide us to compassionate and loving experiences with them. We can enjoy our time with them which is so precious, and they can feel validated and safe.