Dementia communication: Speaking

Nearly every type of dementia compromises the ability to process language. It’s harder for the affected person to grasp words, to comprehend their meaning, and to track what’s being said. Communication with your family member may seem a frustrating struggle. Still, aim for interactions that maintain a positive relationship.

Your emotional tone is key: Pay attention to your body language, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and volume. What will linger for your relative is how they felt about the interaction more than what was said.

To help your relative, speak slowly, calmly, and patiently. Avoid long sentences, slang, or idioms (“Keep your eyes peeled”). Try to avoid comments that might leave your loved one feeling less-than or stupid.

Conversation tips

  • Don’t talk as if your relative is not there­—for example, at the doctor’s office.
  • Avoid correcting or arguing. Unless it creates danger, go along with their view when possible. Pointing out their deficits just engenders shame and mistrust.
  • Keep stories or topics simple. They can’t follow a complicated plot.
  • Avoid questions about recent events, such as “What did you do yesterday?” Focus instead on the far past and their feelings, as in “What did you used to do for fun in the winter?”

Informing or getting things done

  • Do “with,” not “to” or “for.” To support cooperation, sit at the same eye level, make eye contact, touch or hold hands, and share what you would like them to do. They need to feel they still have control in their life.
  • Offer binary choices: “yes/no” questions or two choices (“Would you like coffee or tea?”) rather than open-ended questions (“What would you like to drink?”). Consider offering your preferred option last. It’s often the one chosen.
  • Visual cues are helpful. Show them the choices so they can point.
  • Keep instructions simple, one step at a time.