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What Should You Not Say to Someone Living with Dementia?

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a woman speaks to her senior mother with dementia

Loved ones living with dementia can experience various cognitive problems. Memory care in senior living communities can help provide the right care and support for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

As dementia progresses, it can affect a loved one’s memory, language, and ability to communicate clearly. Missteps in dialogue can result in confusion or distress. For these reasons, avoid mentioning lost loved ones, elderspeak, corrections, asking them to remember something, rushing them, complex sentences, and open-ended questions.

As memory and communication become progressively challenged, caregivers and family members can adapt their approach. Understanding what not to say to someone with dementia is just as crucial as knowing how to say it.

Understanding the Sensitivities Around Dementia

Individuals with dementia can face many challenges depending on the stage of the dementia. These challenges can include behavior changes and confusion, often requiring patience and sensitivity from those around them. At the heart of communicating with a loved one with dementia is empathy and compassion and what not to say. 

Avoid Reminding Them of a Lost Family Member

Someone with dementia may not remember a lost loved one or close family member. They might wonder where that person is and why they haven’t come to see them.

Mentioning a lost loved one can trigger confusion or pain. In such cases, avoid saying things like “She passed 5 years ago.” 

Steer Clear of Memory Triggers

Asking direct questions about recent events, like “Do you recall what happened this morning?” or “Try to think harder,” can apply pressure and frustrate a loved one with dementia. Instead, focus on phrases such as “Tell me about your day” or “You seem happy today.” 

Creating a comfortable environment is about steering the conversation from dependency on short-term memory and sharing your experiences while allowing them to engage at their own pace.

Avoid Correcting 

One of the most important things to remember is to avoid correcting someone with dementia. Correcting their memories or insisting on the accuracy of facts may lead to frustration and confusion. 

Instead, try to join their reality, focusing on the emotions they are expressing rather than the accuracy of the details. For example, avoid saying: “That’s not true. You never lived there.” Or “Yes, I already told you that before.”

Refrain from Using Complex Language

Using complicated language can be overwhelming for someone with dementia. Opt for simple, clear, and concise sentences to facilitate better understanding. 

Break down information into smaller, manageable parts to make communication more effective. For example, avoid saying, “We need to prepare for your doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning.”

Avoid Asking Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions can be overwhelming for someone with dementia, as they may struggle to process and respond. Instead, use simple, closed-ended questions that require a yes or no answer to make communication more accessible. For example, instead of asking, “What would you like to do today?” try saying, “Would you like to go for a walk in the garden?”

Don’t Rush or Show Impatience

Rushing a loved one with dementia or showing impatience can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Allow someone with dementia time to express themselves and respond to questions. For example, avoid saying: “Hurry up,” or “We don’t have all day.”

Avoid Elderspeak

Elderspeak is a communication style often unintentionally used when addressing older adults with dementia. It can be counterproductive and potentially harmful and involves speaking in an overly simplistic manner or using baby talk. 

Caregivers and family members should be mindful of their language, steer clear of elderspeak, and strive to maintain a respectful and adult dialogue. For example, avoid saying, “It’s time for your medicine, sweetie. Open wide. Good job.”

Communicating with Patience & Understanding

Effective communication isn’t solely about words. When talking to loved ones with dementia, use active listening techniques to show you value their input. Always respect personal space and boundaries. Approach conversations with sensitivity and be mindful of the individual’s comfort level. 

Establishing trust is crucial for effective communication. Pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as gestures or facial expressions, which can often convey emotions and needs more accurately than words. And lastly, create a calming environment to maintain a positive and supportive connection. 

Nurturing Those Living with Dementia

When communicating with someone with dementia, navigating the complexities around cognitive decline requires compassion above all. Through awareness of inappropriate language and adopting positive communication tips, caregivers and family members can connect, share, and create meaningful moments together. 

It’s not just what you say but how you say it that can nurture a space for someone with dementia and those around them. When you choose words and actions that affirm their sense of self, it fosters love and understanding. 

Schedule a tour of Liana to learn more about our community and how our memory care program nurtures loved ones living with dementia. 


Written by Angela Clark

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