Altering the way we communicate for someone who is living with dementia

peronal_communication_largeDid you know that spoken words only account for 7% of communication?  The remaining 93% of communication is conveyed through body language, vocal tone and pitch.  If you are surprised by this information you are in good company – most people don’t realize this.  Human brains process communication in milliseconds so we aren’t aware this process is even occurring.

Communication style becomes especially important when there is someone in your life that is living with dementia.  Communication often becomes one of the most challenging aspects because we try to use the same communication technique with someone living with dementia as for those who don’t have this brain impairment.  Understanding a few basic elements of communication can make a positive difference.

  1. Remember that 93% of communication is non-verbal.  Use this dynamic effectively to help the person with dementia be better able to process what you are saying.  Here are some tips:
    • Stand at eye level in front of them so they benefit from seeing your body language and facial expressions.  People likely don’t realize how often they speak behind or besides someone.  If that person has dementia the lack of visual cues hampers their ability to process information.
    • Slow your speech down because their brains process information more slowly.
    • Phone calls are especially challenging for someone who has dementia because the only communication cues they receive are words (7%) and vocal tone and pitch (38%).  Limit phone conversations to a minute or so and say something positive like, “I was thinking of you and just wanted to call and say hello.”  The expectation of being able to have a meaningful two-way phone conversation is not realistic.
    • Consider using Skype or another one of the visual software methods on a computer, tablet or iPad to communicate.  This provides the opportunity to see the person speaking, which greatly enhances their ability to process what is being communicated.
  1. Take time to listen to the person’s response giving them enough time to respond.  Don’t interrupt them while they are speaking.  If they are especially stuck on a word, kindly supply the word and see how the individual reacts.  If they don’t appear to want the help, let them manage on their own.
  1. Ask one question at a time and ask questions that require simple or yes or no answers.   For instance, “Do you want scrambled or fried eggs this morning?” instead of “How would you like your eggs this morning?”
  1. Where possible, give visual cues about what you are communicating about.    
  1. Use touch as a way to communicate.  Touch is a powerful communicator.  When used positively touch can convey caring and warm feelings.  It only takes a moment for a light touch or pat on the shoulder, a kiss on top of the head of someone sitting, or a gentle hand squeeze.
  1. Smile often, not only because it conveys warmth and caring, but also because smiling can make you feel better too. 
  1. Spend time together in companionable silence.  It can be exhausting for someone living with dementia to continually process communication.  Sit across from the person or at 90 degrees so they can easily see you.
  1. Lastly, the most important action you can take is to be aware of how you are communicating and whether it is having desirable results such as smiles, nodding, and looking contented, happy, or relaxed.   If not, review how you were communicating to see if you should adjust an aspect of your technique.
Written by Karen Love

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9 Comments

  1. When my adult niece was in the hospital and couldn’t speak they have her a printed board to use. It had one section of 26 squares with each letter of the alphabet on a square. There was a section with pictures of objects – glass of beverage, shoes, pillow, book, etc.
    There was a section of simple common words – Mother, nurse, etc. Maybe you could get one of those, or put together a custom one for your Mom, Guenthard Erin

    Reply
  2. I just broke out the whiteboard, because ma can’t hear and I am completely over raising my voice to her to hear. Her hearing aids don’t work. The tones have changed. So I wrote what I needed her to know on a whiteboard. She started crying because she is just as frustrated as I am. I will keep trying to find solutions.

    Reply
  3. I am trying to contact either Karen Love or Jackie Pinkowitz as I am using their theoretical framework “Dementia Initiative’s Person centered Dementia Care Framework” in my dissertation. Is there any way to find them? Thank you,
    Lisa O’Toole
    [email protected]

    Reply
  4. Not only great advice for dementia, but all are Very helpful hints for parents with a hearing problem! Thank you!

    Reply
  5. They say let the person with Dementia SEE you, your gestures, face..But My mom has Macular Degeneration and Was blind in one eye to begin with..I do a lot of touching…

    Reply
  6. Very helpful

    Reply

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