Learning how to talk to a parent with dementia takes both resilience and time. Dee Marques shares eight key strategies to help you deal with the communication process more easily. 

 

Dementia is one of the cruelest things that can happen to anyone, and is equally hard for both the person affected by the disease and their carers. The term dementia covers a broad range of brain diseases – such as Alzheimer's – that can lead to a long-term and gradual decrease in a person's ability to think and remember things. Other symptoms include emotional problems, decreased motivation and language difficulties. Indeed, when it comes to language and communication, talking to a parent with dementia can be frustrating for all those involved, but we have some useful advice.


Unfortunately, global dementia diagnoses are on the rise. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, there’s a new dementia case diagnosed approximately every three seconds, and estimates suggest that the number of people affected by dementia is likely to double by the year 2050. This comes at a tremendous economic and personal cost, potentially affecting millions of families. 


Dealing with dementia is particularly hard when your parents are involved. Dementia symptoms put an enormous strain on the parent-child relationship, and can wreak havoc in the happiness of your family life. One of the main challenges is knowing how to talk to a parent with dementia. Unlike other serious diseases where the ability to talk and feel close to the person affected remains untouched, dementia takes away the chances of sharing, communicating and being together in a meaningful way. 


Learning how to deal with talking to a parent with dementia takes time and resilience, but it can be done. Here are eight useful tips for dealing with dementia and improving communication with parents affected by this difficult condition.

 

Talking to a parent with dementia: useful tips

Being able to communicate with others is essential for every human being. Evolutionary psychologists say that the development of spoken communication played a key role in the success and survival of our species, so since this is something deeply ingrained in us, it’s normal to feel that something important has been taken away when communication breaks down. 

 

“Learning how to deal with talking to a parent with dementia takes time and resilience, but it can be done.”


If you’re dealing with dementia in your household and feel lost, remember that we’re not born knowing how to talk to a parent with dementia. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it: talking with a parent with dementia doesn’t get easier, but there are certain skills and strategies that can improve communication.

 

1. Non-verbal communication

When learning how to talk to a parent with dementia, one of the most important things to remember is that communication doesn’t only depend on spoken language. People with dementia are receptive to other ways of communicating, such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and physical contact. They are still sensitive to non-verbal communication, so make sure you’re not “contributing to the situation by telegraphing your anger, resentment, and frustration through your body language”.

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Consider physical contact when talking to a parent with dementia

 

2. Eliminate distractions

When talking with a parent with dementia, do your best to get their full attention. People affected by dementia are easily distracted, and things like background noise, people coming and going, etc. Moreover, moving objects can not only take their attention away but can also cause agitation. Turn off any devices – radio, TV, music – and move to a quiet room. Avoid sudden movements or changes in your tone of voice.

 

3. Keep it simple

Keep conversations around one idea only to make things easier to process for your parent. If you need to repeat yourself, stick to the same wording. Studies on how to talk to a parent with dementia suggest you use one verb per sentence and ask yes/no questions whenever possible. Otherwise, as this nurse says, “it becomes very hard for them to follow a complex conversation”.

 

4. Be specific

One of the most common signs of dementia is the inability to remember the names of people and places. Make it easier for a parent with dementia and always spell out the name of the people or places you talk about, instead of using vague words that may confuse them (he, she, here or there). Also, depending on the level of their dementia, consider using your parent’s name and start the conversation telling them your name and who you are.

 

“Talking with a parent with dementia doesn’t get easier, but there are certain skills and strategies that can improve communication.”

 

5. Anticipate 

Watch out for gestures that could come across as intimidating or threatening. Avoid talking with a parent with dementia from a position where they can’t see you and make sure lighting is good enough so your face isn’t obscured. It’s always a good idea to position yourself at their eye level, sitting in front or next to them (but not too close) and maintaining good eye contact.

 

6. Give them time

It takes longer for a person with dementia to process information, so speak at a slower pace than normal and pause between sentences. Another important aspect of how to talk to a parent with dementia is to give them plenty of time to respond without showing impatience.

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Maintain eye contact when dealing with a parent with dementia shutterstock/Photographee.eu

 

7. Use visual cues

Visual cues can help when figuring out how to talk to a parent with dementia, as they simplify the decision-making process. For example, instead of asking which coat they want to wear or what they’d like to eat, show them the options. It’s also important to limit the choices to avoid your parent becoming overwhelmed. As the Mayo Clinic staff recommends, "simplify the decisions you expect him or her to make”. 

 

8. Try again later

Knowing what to do when things get tough is one of the challenges when learning how to talk to a parent with dementia. If you’re not getting cooperation, it’s best to give it a rest and try again in 20-30 minutes instead of insisting or creating confrontation.

 

Talking with a parent with dementia: what not to say

When learning how to talk to a parent with dementia, knowing what not to say is just as important as knowing what to say. Some things to avoid include:

 

  • “I’ve just told you that” or “you already said that”.
  • “You’re wrong” or anything that challenges them.
  • “(someone) is dead”.
  • “You can’t do that” or anything that questions their abilities.
  •  “Do you know who I am?” or “do you remember X”?
  • “What did you do today?” or any question that requires a long-winded or detailed account.

 

Sentences that may look harmless to us may take on a different meaning and could cause negative reactions when talking to a parent with dementia.

 

Conclusions: talking to a parent with dementia

Communicating with a parent who has dementia can be stressful and heartbreaking, but it can be as frustrating for them as it is for you. 


Sometimes, you may feel out of depth figuring how to talk to a parent with dementia, but it’s still possible to find moments of joy and happiness. The main points to remember are avoiding confrontation and distraction, making conversation easier by keeping things short and simple, and supporting what you say with visual cues and positive body language. 


Patience and empathy are key when talking to a parent with dementia. And remember: that you’re not alone in dealing with this. ●


Looking for advice or support from other happiness.com members around dealing with dementia in a parent? Search our forum to look for a discussion, and if there isn't one, take the first step and start one.

Main image: shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

 

Written by Dee Marques

dee.jpgA social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.


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