How to Talk with Seniors with Dementia
March 02, 2023
“It’s important to learn about their lives and past experiences, especially impactful ones, as well as likes and dislikes,” says Ervin Chacon, a behavioral health coordinator at the InnovAge Colorado PACE center in Thornton. “The more you know, the more you can connect with older adults using positive and meaningful memories, such as a favorite song, food, or experience.” General tips include:
- Minimize distractions. A TV or radio may make it difficult to hear, listen attentively, or concentrate. Turn off or turn down background noise, but always ask if it's OK to do so.
- Be mindful of the approach. Keep your body language open and relaxed. People with dementia can lose their peripheral vision, so approach them from the front and speak to them at eye level. If they are comfortable with it, pat or hold their hand while talking to them.
- Keep it simple. Maintain eye contact and smile. Speak clearly and slowly, using short sentences and plain language.
- Use visual cues. For example, if you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” use an arm motion to suggest that. Encourage them to do the same, by having them point or gesture.
- Offer basic choices. “You still want to allow people their preferences, but keep it simple,” says Ervin. “Asking ‘What would you like to wear?’ may be too overwhelming. Instead, hold up two shirts and ask, ‘Would you like the shirt with the blue flowers or with yellow stripes?’”
- Ask open-ended, observational questions. When looking through a photo album, ask, “What do you see?” or “She’s wearing a lovely dress. What do you think?” These can lead to a more positive conversation than asking your loved one what they remember of that day or event. If they don’t remember, asking pointed questions may cause them to get distressed and upset.
- Be patient and let them have a voice. Encourage them to be part of conversations and speak for themselves. If they are having trouble communicating, you can help by rephrasing questions or encouraging them to share more about their answer.
- Show respect. “Treat seniors with dignity and respect,” says Kathleen. “Don’t use ‘baby talk’ or talk down to older adults. Show empathy, be reassuring, and honor their preferences. Having dementia doesn’t take away the need to feel independent, in control, and respected.”
Our care coordination team partners with specialists to treat many diseases and conditions, including dementia, depression, and other mental health conditions. Take this self-assessment to find out if InnovAge PACE is a good fit for you or your loved one.
The information in this article and on InnovAge’s website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen.