Having a loved-one receive a diagnosis of Dementia can be life-changing and deeply distressing.
Along with the realities that accompany Dementia are the disheartening and upsetting facts that friends and family must often face related to the changes in seniors’ ability to interact, communicate and, connect in the same way as they could earlier in their lives. Despite this, it is important not to abandon hope or assume that trying to communicate effectively is a lost cause. Even the smallest or most fleeting of moments during which a sense of connectedness is experienced can be so incredibly meaningful, and there are strategies that can help facilitate and nurture better communication with seniors who have Dementia that can help to bring those special moments to fruition. Even as new challenges present themselves, remember that there is always room for hope.
How Dementia Makes Communication Difficult
Dementia alters seniors’ functioning in numerous important ways, many of which can create barriers that make communication a lot more difficult and challenging to navigate. The following list outlines some of the behaviours that may come into play with Dementia that can inhibit seniors’ ability to communicate as effectively as they once did:
- Describing people or objects rather than calling them by name
- Difficulty ordering words and formulating coherent sentences
- Forgetting or being unable to find a word
- Losing train of thought easily
- Making up new words to replace lost ones
- Repeating words or phrases
- Relying on gestures rather than speaking verbally
- Reverting to a mother-tongue or first language learned
The extent to which seniors display these behaviours is dependent on many factors, and can differ day-to-day. Communication may flow more easily on one day than it does on the next because of conditions such as sleep quality, stress, symptoms of other health conditions, or effects of medications.
Whenever we are in a social or interactional situation with other people, effective communication requires multiple different forms of involvement. Connecting in a meaningful way is more than just having words exchanged between two people, it is about attentive and engaged listening, thoughtful speaking, interpretation, and seeking understanding of one another. Adapting communication styles to meet the new realities that exist for seniors with Dementia can mean learning an entirely new set of skills and strategies to make sure you are understood and that you understand what the other person is trying to say as well. Keeping some key ideas in mind can help through the process of navigating these interactions in a respectful and positive way despite the challenges that may occur.
- Accept New Realities: While it is perfectly natural to feel saddened and discouraged by the fact that communicating now involves some challenges, it does not do well to dwell on the negative or try to pretend that the challenges aren’t there. Accepting that things are different now can help foster a healthy state of mind with which to move forward.
- Be Attentive: It can, at times, become hard to discern what your loved-one is trying to express to you during a conversation if their communication skills have weakened, so be attentive and gently ask for clarification when needed.
- Don’t Nitpick: Learn to let mistakes and inaccuracies go, otherwise conversation will start to get so caught up in correcting little mistakes or misunderstandings, and not much meaningful communication will actually take place.
- Educate Yourself: Making yourself knowledgeable about Dementia, its progression, and how it might come to impact your loved-one can provide you with a level of understanding that can help to inform your communication strategies and show you what verbal and non-verbal cues to look out for when you are interacting.
- Emanate Positivity: Navigating a new dynamic of communication and connection can be challenging on both ends, so make sure you try to stay positive, make things comfortable, and reinforce your loved one so they know you appreciate them and their efforts.
- Expect Ups and Downs: Each day is different, and some days will be easier than others, but remaining as engaged with your loved-one as possible remains important on all days.
- Minimize Distractions: Creating an atmosphere in which there are fewer distractions can give seniors with Dementia a better opportunity to focus entirely on the conversation at hand so that they can be as fully engaged as they are capable of being.
- One Thing At A Time: If communicating and following a conversation have become more challenging, it makes sense to adjust in ways that accommodate those challenges. Try talking through one topic before switching to another, rather than adding a whole bunch of different dialogues at once that need to be followed and kept track of.
- Stay Patient: Give your loved-one enough time to process what you are saying, and try not to get frustrated when long pauses occur or you are asked to repeat something you have said.
- Speak Clearly: Some of us tend to alter our voices when we think someone is struggling to understand us, whether it be ‘baby talking’, raising our voices, or pausing in between each word. While the intentions may be coming from the right place, this can come across as condescending, and can also make it more difficult for natural communication to take place in a constructive way.
- Use Cues: When connecting verbally becomes more difficult, it can be helpful to make more use of non-verbal forms of communication, such as eye contact and facial expressions, to portray emotions and thoughts to one another in a perceptible way.
- Use Names: To avoid confusion, use names rather than pronouns when referring to people or items. This helps make following the subjects of conversation more manageable throughout the dialogue.
- Don’t Lose Hope: While communication may not come as easily or happen as efficiently as you would like, never lose hope that your loved-one still has thoughts and feelings to express and that you can still maintain a meaningful connection.
Communicating with a senior who is dealing with the symptoms of Dementia can definitely be hard and discouraging at times, but using purposeful strategies and new ways of connecting can help nurture deeply meaningful relationships even as Dementia progresses. While interactions may look and feel different than they once did, and might be made up of different styles of communication, keep a positive mindset and know that there is always support available in the Ottawa area to help you to navigate new challenges as you face them.