Memory Mondays: How to Communicate with People with Dementia

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Care for those who have dementia or memory concerns doesn’t fall entirely to their caregivers or family members. They’re often significantly influenced by interactions with those around them. This means we all have a certain responsibility to learn the best ways to communicate with people with dementia.

Here at The Clare, we recently launched a new initiative called Friendly Neighbors to teach our residents about memory loss, how they can be good friends to those with cognitive concerns and ways to implement communication skills specific to working with someone who has trouble remembering. Friendly Neighbors gatherings take place once a month, and they focus on simple techniques and communication tips that residents can employ to better communicate with those around them who have memory issues.

“It’s about appreciating what people are already doing, but also helping other people share so they can learn what more they can do,” says Joanne Malleta, Director of Resident Health Services at The Clare.

Here are just a few ways to communicate with people with dementia.

Remove pressures on conversation. Making conversation for the sake of making conversation can lead to frustration. You don’t have to fill the gaps in order to communicate, Malleta says. Sometimes, just sitting with someone and being there can be helpful.

Reconsider your activities. It may be instinctual to ask someone to lunch or dinner, but a meal can be a long time to hold a conversation. But quality time doesn’t necessarily have to involve talking. Maybe lunch isn’t the right fit, but you can go for a walk instead.

Think about your language. Much of the time, the key way to communicate with people with dementia is to think about how you say something. “Sometimes it’s as simple as slowing down and using less words in our sentences,” Malleta says. “Sometimes it’s as simple as listening and paying attention to what we say and our tone of voice – annunciating instead of getting louder. It may create a whole different experience with that person.”

Share your victories – and identify your shortfalls. At each Friendly Neighbors gathering, residents are asked to share how they’ve been a friendly neighbor lately. In one instance, a resident was planning to go to the store, and a woman in the Friendly Neighbors group said she was concerned about her peer going to the store alone. So, rather than expressing worry about the resident going out, she said she needed to go to the store, too, and joined on the trip. In an instance at a sister community of The Clare, someone admitted they feared they had bullied another resident unintentionally. Sharing experiences like this allow others to think about how they may react in a similar scenario and give ideas for future encounters.

Consult your resources. In addition to outlets like Friendly Neighbors, there are many other resources available to better understand how to appropriately communicate with people with dementia. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association maintains a 24/7 hotline you can call for ideas on how to help your neighbor, even if you’re not the direct caregiver. And at The Clare, we encourage independent living residents to volunteer in The Terraces and interact with people with dementia in the memory care wing.

In any case, it all comes down to compassion.

“We’re not going to be friends with every person in the world, and that’s the same with community living,” Malleta says. “But the piece that’s important is how to be kind to people and how to get your point across in a friendly manner.”