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9 Tips on Talking to a Parent with Dementia

Tips on How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia or Alzheimer’s

Having a parent with dementia can weigh heavily on family members, especially if their loved one has Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another type of progressive dementia. Particularly for members of the immediate family and close friends, seeing a family member begin to struggle with symptoms of dementia can be heartbreaking.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative illness that causes the brain to atrophy. With AD, neurons will stop working, lose crucial connectivity with other neurons, and eventually die. AD is considered the most common type of dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), dementia is the loss of a person’s ability to remember, reason, and communicate. 

Memory loss can heighten safety and security risks for seniors, especially those who live alone or who may not have adult children or other family members living nearby who can check in on them and provide daily care. Likewise, the inability to communicate or understand what others are saying can place a person with AD or other dementias in harm’s way and increase their chance of being exploited and falling victim to fraud. Family members and care partners can take steps to ensure senior loved ones are not left alone, to provide continued companionship, personal care, reassurance to reduce isolation and to keep lines of communication open. 

Establishing a positive environment that includes communication strategies to improve the interactions between those with dementia, family caregivers, and loved ones is crucial to maintaining a safe and caring environment for all.

Consulting with a medical professional who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases, learning about dementia, diagnosis, and disease progression can reduce confusion and help families focus on providing the care that loved ones need and deserve.

What to Expect When You Have a Parent with Dementia

Becoming confused, forgetting words, and not being able to talk with others without losing their train of thought increases the anxiety and frustration of a person with dementia. These events can also create worry for those witnessing the impact of dementia on their loved ones. Observing a parent’s struggle is especially challenging for those who have recently returned home and have never experienced seeing a loved one with symptoms associated with AD or any other form of dementia.

A person in the early stages of dementia, such as AD, may begin to have symptoms of increased forgetfulness. They may also start repeating stories, words, and questions. In other instances, the person may have difficulty recalling words while trying to tell a story or simply chatting with family or friends. They may not be able to comprehend what others are saying or asking. An inability to grasp or understand what others are trying to convey in a conversation affects the individual’s capacity to respond and offer feedback, which in turn impacts relationships and interactions with family, friends, and the public in general. 

(Symptoms and signs of dementia will vary by individual, stage of dementia, and type of dementia.)

People with dementia are often at risk of becoming withdrawn and isolated when they become frustrated because they cannot clearly communicate with others. In the early stages of the disease, some individuals may become aware of their increased forgetfulness, confusion, and inability to recall words even before a diagnosis. Likewise, they may observe how family members or friends react to their memory lapses and recall struggles. Inadvertently, family members may act negatively to the person’s forgetfulness and confusion. Unfortunately, these perceived reactions and experiences can increase friction between the person and their family members and friends. 

Some Common Signs and Symptoms of Dementia are as Follows: 

  • Shows difficulty remembering words. As conversations expand from basic chitchat to more lengthy and in-depth discussions, pauses may become more frequent. The person’s inability to remember words causes long pauses. 
  • Loses train of thought frequently.
  • Struggles to organize words in a logical sequence. 
  • Has problems understanding what others are saying and explaining themselves during a conversation.
  • Struggles with reading and writing.
  • Repeats words, questions, and anecdotes. 
  • Makes repeated calls to friends or relatives, often forgetting they just called. Later, they may also find it difficult to handle a smartphone and may ask to use older phone versions. 
  • Begins to struggle to access their online email and bank accounts and do not remember the sequence of steps needed to gain access. 
  • Forgets how to use electronic devices, alarm systems, and household equipment.
  • Reverts to a foreign language they learned as a child, especially to the first language spoken at home.
  • Wanders away, becomes lost, and is not able to recognize their location or home. 
  • Becomes unable to track the time of day, confuses night with day and vice versa, and can no longer identify the season of the year.

In Addition to AD, Here are Some Other Types of Dementia:

To learn about these and other types of dementia, including symptoms and diagnosis, please visit the NIA weblink https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-dementia-symptoms-types-and-diagnosis. 

We also encourage you to visit the Alzheimer’s Association site: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/types-of-dementia.

How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

Communication with a loved one with AD or other dementias may be a daunting and challenging experience for families, especially adult children and spouses. 

AD progressively reduces a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. The impact of AD and other forms of dementia on communication can differ from person to person and according to the stage of the disease.

Effective communication with a loved one with AD can be extremely challenging, especially when family members did not have regular contact with older loved ones before they began showing symptoms of dementia. Family members can take steps to help improve social interaction and communication with those impacted by cognitive decline and memory loss by taking some of the following steps:

  • Avoid power struggles

It’s not unusual to experience power struggles with a family member who has dementia. One way to avoid power struggles is to be mindful of your tone of voice, as well as your nonverbal communication or expressions when trying to converse with a parent or other person showing progressive signs of cognitive decline. A person with AD or another form of dementia may show stubbornness and be less inclined to listen or follow instructions if care partners or adult children take an authoritative stance, indicating that they want to control the conversation and be in charge. 

  • Non-Verbal Cues to Consider in Conversation: 

Non-verbal communication is so important when speaking to a loved one with dementia. When communicating, ask yourself the following questions: Are your arms folded when speaking with your loved one? Are you pointing your index finger when trying to be more emphatic? Are you tapping your foot while quizzing them or giving ultimatums? If so, you’re bound to escalate conflict and cause unnecessary stress—even animosity. Stay away from ultimatums. When a person’s authority is questioned, power struggles and conflicts are bound to ensue. 

  • Avoid distractions when having conversations

When having conversations, minimize environmental distractions, reduce loud sounds, music, radio, or television noise, and other interruptions that could take away from those much-needed opportunities for discussions or chats. Noise and distractions make it difficult to concentrate and understand what is being said and heard, especially for individuals showing increased signs of memory loss and communication struggles. Plan and prepare in advance for those all-important conversations. Identify the right time of day to talk, choosing a time when you are both comfortable and less likely to be interrupted.

  • Speak slowly and clearly

The ability to talk or understand other people’s conversations can be adversely affected as dementia progresses. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests speaking slowly and clearly, especially with those in the middle stages of AD. Speaking clearly and slowly makes it easier for the person with dementia to understand what is being said. For information about communication issues identified at various stages of AD, along with tips to help improve interactions, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association weblink https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/daily-care/communications .

  • Be simple, specific, and stay focused 

Make sure to use sentences and terms that are easy to follow when conversing with a person with dementia. When chatting, try to include specific words that make it easier for the person to focus on what you are trying to say. If the individual cannot understand what you want to convey the first time around, try using different words. Be sure to stay focused on one topic at a time to reduce confusion. For other helpful tips to improve communication, please visit the NIA weblink https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-caregiving-changes-communication-skills.

  • Use visual cues

Using visual cues when communicating with a person with dementia can aid social interaction and provide a positive experience. Our expressions and body language can become effective visual cues when visiting and meeting with a person with dementia. Teepa Snow, a renowned trainer of dementia caregivers, recommends using visual cues when approaching and meeting an individual with dementia. She suggests that the visitor approach the person slowly, make eye contact, show an open hand motion near their face, and smile. Making eye contact and showing an open hand motion near the visitor’s own face helps signal to or cue the person with dementia to look directly at the visitor’s face. 

Body language and expressions can provide visual cues that enhance social interactions between those with dementia and family members or caregivers, especially when the individual is beginning to show an inability to recognize family members or friends. To learn more about Teepa Snow’s methods, please read "A Positive Physical Approach for Someone with Dementia" or download the PDF file at https://teepasnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/A_Positive_Physical_Approach.pdf.

  • Don’t quiz or interrogate 

When asking questions, be careful not to sound demanding or accusatory. Be patient and understand that as a person’s dementia progresses, they may not know what you are saying. Quizzing a person with dementia with a barrage of unnecessary questions only increases anxiety and unnecessary confusion, as well as causing tension and animosity.

  • Avoid being patronizing or impatient

Be careful to check your tone of voice and body language when talking to a person with dementia. When having a face-to-face conversation, trying to help out with instructions, or modeling an action, make sure to express yourself without appearing superior or condescending. Avoid looking or sounding impatient. Remaining calm can help ease the person’s stress while trying to talk or answer, especially when others are anxious and confused. 

  • Ask about their preferences for communication

It’s always wise to ask a loved one about their preferences on how to communicate, and the earlier the better, especially if the person has AD or another form of dementia. If you do not live in the area and want to continue to communicate with the family member, many choices in communication are available, including using a landline phone, texting, emailing, or using Zoom or other web conferencing platforms. When asking about communication choices, avoid listing too many so as not to create too much confusion. Narrow down the list of choices and assist the person with dementia in selecting communication tools or technology they are familiar with and feel comfortable using.

Be flexible with adapting to different communication methods along the way. Current communication technology choices may be fine for those who are in the early stages of dementia but may not work in the middle to later stages of AD or other dementias. The person with dementia may, for example, slowly forget how to use or access their email or use their smartphone to call or to text. 

  • Wait patiently for a response 

Wait patiently for an answer or response when asking questions or conversing. Always offer ample time for the individual to provide feedback. Don’t hurry your loved one into giving a quick response, and don’t hurry them because they do not meet your time constraints. Providing extra time for a reply can make the person feel more at ease and more apt to continue to communicate with you. 

A person with dementia does not need to be stressed out just so you can receive an answer. When the person does give you a response, try providing feedback to let them know that you understand what they are saying. 

Learning about Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other dementias, consulting with a medical professional about disease diagnosis and progression and using effective communication strategies can help improve patient care and understanding. 

Providing care for a family member can be gratifying; however, providing care can also be overwhelming, especially when caring for a loved one with dementia. Family caregivers may feel that they can take charge and do everything by themselves initially; however, as dementia symptoms worsen, such as in AD, care requirements and demands also increase. Caregiver burnout can ultimately begin to impact the health of family caregivers, especially when providing 24/7 care for a loved one. Caregiver burnout not only impacts the health of family caregivers but can also affect the care received by the person with dementia. 

To lessen the risk of burnout, family caregivers can organize a support group of dependable family members and care providers who can assist family caregivers. 

If your loved one needs dementia care services and you need a well-deserved break, Senior Helpers Orlando’s trained and compassionate caregivers can help!

Learn More About Our Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care Services

Why Choose Senior Helpers for Your Dementia Care?

As a leading specialist in Alzheimer's and dementia care, you can trust Senior Helpers Orlando to provide the right level of care your loved one needs and deserves.

Senior Helpers Orlando will work with family members to help design a personalized home care plan that will meet the changing needs of a family loved one with dementia. Our experienced and trained caregivers can provide the right level of care that meets the needs of those with Alzheimer's and other progressive dementias. In addition, our caregivers can also monitor your loved one's daily activities and medications.

Senior Helpers Orlando's dementia care program, Senior Gems, focuses on what dementia patients can still do and not on what they can no longer accomplish. Our Senior Gems' program is based on the Gems™, techniques, strategies, and overall approach to care created and developed by Teepa Snow, Positive Approach, LLC.

Three other important reasons to select Senior Helpers Orlando as a senior care provider 

  • We are committed to making sure caregivers are properly introduced and prepared to meet the needs of senior loved ones. We will never send a stranger to your home.
  • Senior Helpers’ caregivers are supervised employees, and not independent contractors. We are not a “nurse registry” nor a referral service.
  • Nurse support is available 24/7. Senior Helpers Orlando caregivers have access to nurse support. Most private-duty home care companies offer little or no nurse support.

References and resources:

Alzheimer’s Caregiving: Changes in Communication Skills; National Institutes of Health; retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-caregiving-changes-communication-skills

Communication and Alzheimer’s; Alzheimer’s Association; retrieved from https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/daily-care/communications.

A Positive Physical Approach for Someone with Dementia; PAC Training, Positive Approach to Care; Teepa Snow; retrieved from https://teepasnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/A_Positive_Physical_Approach.pdf.

Types of Dementia; Alzheimer’s Association; retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/types-of-dementia.

What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis; National Institute on Aging (NIA); retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-dementia-symptoms-types-and-diagnosis. 

Communication Tips For Successful Communication During All Stages Of Alzheimer’s Disease; Alzheimer’s Association; retrieved from https://www.alz.org/national/documents/brochure_communication.pdf.

Signs of dementia; Alzheimer’s Association; retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/10_signs.