Dementia Care and Communication: The Dos and Don’ts of Dementia Communication Strategies


Dementia profoundly affects millions of individuals and their families worldwide, bringing unique challenges into the lives of those tasked with caregiving.

Caregivers often find themselves at a crossroads, especially when it comes to communicating effectively with those in their care. The condition’s impact on cognitive abilities can transform what used to be simple conversations into intricate puzzles, which can leave both parties feeling misunderstood and frustrated.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • How to tap into empathy and understanding to enhance communication
  • Strategies to create a positive and supportive environment
  • Practical tips to avoid common communication pitfalls

Armed with these insights, you can foster a more nurturing and less stressful environment, paving the way for meaningful connections despite the challenges posed by dementia.

Happy elderly woman with her daughter

The Dos: 7 Effective Dementia Communication Strategies

When you care for someone with dementia, communication can be a major challenge, especially as the person’s condition worsens over time. The key is to know what to expect and to do your best to keep the person calm and the environment as stress-free as possible. The following seven strategies will help you do so.

Respond to the Feelings Expressed Instead of the Content

When communicating with a person with dementia, it’s crucial to listen beyond the words they say.

Their expressions might not always align with their emotions or intentions due to their cognitive challenges. In fact, they might make statements that are confused or factually untrue. In such a situation, it’s important not to correct the person. You’ll likely only make them upset.

Instead, recognize and validate their feelings, whether they’re expressing joy, confusion, or distress, in order to show understanding and empathy.

Use Distraction When Appropriate

At times, individuals with dementia may fixate on a particular thought or become agitated. Gently guiding their attention to a different subject or activity can help alleviate their distress.

Distractions such as discussing a favorite memory, looking at photos, or engaging in a simple, enjoyable task can be very effective.

Use Props

Props can be a powerful tool in enhancing communication. Everyday items, photographs, or music can evoke positive emotions and memories, facilitating a connection that words alone might not achieve. This approach can also help in conveying messages and understanding needs.

Whenever possible, use multisensory cueing to help the person understand what you’re trying to convey to them. For example, if you’re trying to convince the person to eat, you might place the spoon in their hand, point to the food, take a big sniff and say “that smells so good,” and help them to take a small taste.

Use Touch

A comforting touch can convey a wealth of emotions when words fall short. Holding hands, a gentle pat on the back, or a warm hug can provide reassurance, convey love, and reduce anxiety, making it easier for the person to communicate.

Like any strategy, however, touch might not be appropriate for all people with dementia or in all situations. If the person pulls away from your attempt and shows anxiety, switch tactics.

Beyond touch, you can also use body language to convey that you care. Eye contact is especially important to help the person know you’re paying attention to them.

Give Praise

Positive reinforcement goes a long way in encouraging communication. Praise successes, no matter how small, to boost the person’s confidence and willingness to express themselves. This could be as simple as acknowledging their effort to engage in conversation or completing a task.

Of course, you should always use praise sincerely. If you try to fake it, the person may perceive your insincerity and feel patronized.

Match Your Communication Style to the Person

Tailoring your own communication style to fit the person’s current abilities and preferences is important. This might mean simplifying your language, speaking more slowly, or using more non-verbal cues.

Some people respond best to a gentle approach, while others respond better to firm direction. You’ll need to learn the approach that works best with the person you’re helping.

If the person with dementia is more alert and is open to it, humor can go a long way to making the atmosphere pleasant. On the other hand, be careful not to use humor that’s too abstract, witty, or sarcastic, as the person might not understand or feel that they’re being made fun of. Also, if more than one caregiver is in the room, avoid joking and laughing with each other, as the person with dementia may feel left out.

Pay attention to what works best for the person and adapt your approach accordingly.

Maintain a Calm and Positive Environment

The setting in which communication takes place can significantly impact its effectiveness. Strive to create a calm, soothing atmosphere free of distractions and noise.

In addition, make sure that your mood is positive, as people with dementia often respond as much to the moods of their caregivers as they do to words spoken. This can help the person with dementia focus better and feel more at ease during interactions.

By incorporating these seven strategies, you can improve communication with the person, making each interaction more meaningful and less fraught with frustration.

The Don’ts: 5 Practices to Avoid When Communicating with Someone Suffering from Dementia

While the list of strategies above will go a long way in helping you to more effectively communicate with someone with dementia, there are some important “don’ts” to keep in mind, as well. When frustrated, it’s sometimes easy to slip into one or more bad habits that will only cause the situation to worsen.

The following are some important negative practices to be on guard for.

Don’t Force the Person to See Reality

Attempting to correct or convince a person with dementia of the “real” situation can lead to unnecessary distress. Instead of insisting on the facts, try to enter into the other person’s reality with empathy, acknowledging their feelings and perspective without reinforcing any misconceptions.

Don’t Argue with the Person

Arguing with someone who has dementia is counterproductive and can escalate their confusion and frustration. It’s important to remember that their reality may be different due to cognitive changes they’re experiencing. Practice patience and redirect conversations gently to avoid confrontation.

Don’t Boss the Person Around

While it might be tempting to take charge in some situations, especially in tasks of daily living, it’s crucial to offer choices and involve the person in decisions as much as possible. This helps maintain their dignity and sense of autonomy, reducing potential resistance and agitation.

Don’t Be Condescending

Always communicate with respect and avoid talking down to the person with dementia. Use an adult tone of voice and choose words carefully, avoiding “elderspeak” or baby talk, which can be demeaning and lead to negative reactions.

Don’t Overwhelm the Person with Choices

While offering choices is important, presenting too many options can be overwhelming and confusing. Simplify decisions by offering clear, limited options. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want to wear?” you might say, “Would you like to wear your blue shirt or your green sweater today?”

By steering clear of these pitfalls, you can minimize misunderstandings and create a more supportive and positive communication environment. This approach not only respects the individuality and dignity of the person with dementia, but also contributes to a less stressful caregiving experience for you.

Dementia Care is Challenging–Use These Strategies to Lighten the Load

In navigating the complex journey of dementia care, effective communication stands out as a beacon of hope, offering a pathway to deeper connections and mutual understanding.

By embracing the “Dos” of empathetic listening, using props, gentle touch, and tailoring your communication style to that of the other person, you can bridge the gap created by cognitive changes.

Equally important is avoiding the “Don’ts” like forcing your reality on the other person, arguing with them, or overwhelming them with choices, which can lead to unnecessary distress for both you and the person with dementia.

The strategies outlined in this article are just the beginning, of course. Each person with dementia is a unique individual, and what works for one person may not work for another. The key is patience, flexibility, and a willingness to adapt.

Remember, the goal is not just to communicate but to connect, affirming the dignity and worth of the other person at every step of their journey.