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How to Communicate Effectively with Those Who Suffer from Moderate to Severe Dementia

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Some of life’s greatest joy lies in connecting with people. From close friends, family, and loved ones, to those we happen to meet in line for a coffee or sit next to on the train – connecting with others is at the root of human nature, and we do so through communicating. But what happens when our normal methods of communicating change, or become difficult?

Picture this: you’re on the phone with your grandmother and you notice she can’t seem to find the right words, keeps losing her train of thought, and repeating the same questions that were just asked. These are signs of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, and equipped with the right tools, you can adjust how you communicate to keep that connection alive and to have the most meaningful and successful conversation possible.

Nonverbal Cues

One of the major players in how we interpret someone’s tone, intention, and reaction is nonverbal cues.  Body language and physical contact can make or break a conversation for someone with dementia. Try to match your facial expressions and body language to your tone and words. It is important to be mindful of keeping your voice and cadence of speech level, as raising your voice or suddenly speaking quickly can be startling. It is common for later stage patients to lean on nonverbal cues as their main source of communication if words become too difficult or confusing to understand. It can even be helpful to hold their hand or put an arm around them for reassurance and comfort.

Visual Aids

In addition to being conscious of nonverbal cues, it can be very helpful to implement visual aids for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. For example, “Instead of asking your parent to brush and floss their teeth, you set out the brush and floss on the counter-top. If your parent is struggling to remember to put toothpaste on the brush, you can do so for them. This can save you from explaining all the little details of a task that your parent needs to accomplish.” While talking through what they need to do may seem like the default option, giving them the tools to figure it out on their own is the better option in the long run.

There is science to back up the importance of using visual cues. When we look at objects, our brains perform feature binding, which combines all the specific features of the object to form a full picture. In contrast, those with dementia benefit from identifying an object by a single feature, like color, instead of both color and shape. Research suggests, “visual search is likely to be facilitated by visual short-term memory (short-term memory limited to information in the visual domain), patients with AD would be better able to maintain their search target in memory, and therefore find the target sooner… reducing visual clutter helps to improve perception.”

The Alzheimer’s Association reports 1 in 9 adults over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, equating to about six million Americans in total. While it may take extra effort and attention to keep loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia included, it is so important they don’t feel overlooked. Adjusting conversations and reactions to certain situations by using nonverbal cues and implementing visual aids will help them feel more confident, important, and supported.