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Tips for Communicating with a Loved One Affected by Dementia

When a loved one is diagnosed with a cognitive impairment, it can be hard to know how to communicate. The good news is, we can learn. Better communication can improve the quality of our relationships and eliminate some of the stress and frustration that goes into not only understanding, but being understood. The Alzheimer’s Association paints a picture of dementia as “stepping off a plane into a foreign country. Some natives come up to you and speak in what sounds like questioning phrases, but you can’t understand what they are saying. You have to use the bathroom after your long flight and ask where the restroom is, but no one seems to understand what you are saying. As you gesture, their eyes light up and you think you’ve made your point, and someone comes running bringing you a bowl of soup. You are becoming frustrated at your inability to communicate in their language. You desperately hope someone around will be able to translate and make sense of all that is going on around you in this foreign world.”  Patience and understanding go a long way in making your loved one feel safe and secure.

Sometimes the anger, confusion, fear, paranoia, or frustration associated with dementia results in wild mood swings, statements like “I want to go home now!,” or hurtful accusations—like stealing—and it can be hard not to take it personally.

Remember: The behavior isn’t deliberate. Your loved one isn’t being aggressive on purpose. Many times, aggression is stemming from fear.

Whatever you do, do NOT engage in an argument or force the issue. This can unintentionally escalate a situation.

Instead, keep a schedule. Look for patterns. What happened before the problem started? What did the environment look like? Does changing the atmosphere help? Why do you think they’re feeling that way? You can avoid meltdowns by picking up on cues. If that doesn’t work, there’s always distraction.    


Validate feelings. Show that you’re listening and you understand. You want to help. Smile. Stay calm. Instead of saying “no,” be accepting. Look for ways to agree. “I see that you’re upset. Should we go for a walk?” 

Here are some other tips on communicating as dementia progresses:

  • Try to find a quiet place to talk, away from too many distractions.
  • Approach the person from the front and identify yourself.
  • Think about what you’re going to talk about in advance. Use props to encourage chatting (photos, etc.).
  • Try not to ask too many questions.
  • Focus on feelings rather than facts. (Sometimes emotions are more important than what’s being expressed.)  
  • Allow the person plenty of time to respond. Don’t interrupt. 
  • Be respectful. Don’t talk baby-talk or use phrases like “good girl.”
  • If the person isn’t following what you’re saying, rephrase rather than repeat.
  • Stay calm. Avoid correcting or criticizing.
  • Don’t argue. Try to be reassuring and encouraging.
  • Share compliments freely.
  • Be positive.
  • Practice patience and forgiveness.  
  • Don’t underestimate the power of touch. A hug, holding someone’s hand, or putting an arm around their shoulders can go a long way in communicating.  

For more information about Catholic Eldercare, providing a continuum of affordable housing and care—assisted living, independent living, skilled nursing, memory care, transitional care, adult day services, and pastoral care—in Northeast Minneapolis, call 612-379-1370.