Engaging with a Loved One with Alzheimer’s


Having a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia can be challenging, especially when it comes to communicating with them. At Seasons Retirement Communities, we understand that communication can be difficult, and we want to help you better engage with your loved one to show them how much you care. 

September 21st is World Alzheimer’s Day, where every year, individuals all across the globe focus on raising awareness and support about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In support of families, we’ve created a guide on how to talk to someone with dementia, including some tips on what to do, how to assist them and what to avoid. 

Is it Alzheimer’s, dementia, or memory loss due to aging? 


Often, terms like Alzheimer’s and dementia are used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Dementia is a catch-all term for the loss of decision-making, memory and cognitive functions, impairing an individual’s day-to-day life. In contrast, Alzheimer’s refers to a specific disease and is the most common cause of dementia. 

Sometimes, people experience increases in memory loss with age. Dementia and Alzheimer’s, while prevalent amongst older people, are not a normal part of aging. To find out if your loved one is experiencing age-related memory loss or dementia, book an appointment with a healthcare provider. 

What to expect


Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can be challenging. When learning how to speak to someone with dementia effectively, knowing what to expect is often helpful. 

You may notice some of the following:

  • Repeating words, questions and stories (and often being unaware of the repetition) 
  • Difficulty finding the right words 
  • Describing objects but not naming them 
  • Talking less than usual
  • Reverting to their mother tongue entirely or mid-way through sentences
  • Losing trains of thought 


How to communicate with your loved one 


Not everyone’s journey is the same, as each individual may have a different experience with dementia. That said, there are a few helpful dementia communication techniques you can use to engage with your loved one more meaningfully. 

How to prepare to communicate


  • Start by preparing the environment, ensuring it’s not too noisy or distracting, as this can hinder communication. 
  • Ensure their basic needs, like bathroom, food and hygiene, are met. This preparation eliminates distractions and increases comfort.  
  • Make sure they are ready to communicate with you. There might be a specific location or time of day that works best. 
  • Get the person’s full attention. 


How to listen well  


  • Use active listening. Make eye contact and nod to show engagement as they speak. Ensure your body language also demonstrates your interest. Turning towards your loved one and leaning in as you listen is a great way to show you’re being attentive.
  • Watch their body language. Body language reveals a lot about how someone is feeling. Watch for signs of anxiety, restlessness or sudden movements, and tailor your communication accordingly.
  • Ask for clarification when needed. Consider repeating your loved one’s statement to confirm you heard correctly, proving you have been listening. 
  • Be patient. Alzheimer’s can make it difficult for your loved ones to express themselves. If you ask a question, leave some time for a response. Don’t rush, interrupt or correct them as they speak. Let them express their feelings as best they can. 


What to say – Verbal communication strategies for dementia 


  • Speak clearly and calmly. Ensure you enunciate your syllables properly and use clear, concise language. 
  • Keep it simple. No one likes being bombarded with too many questions or ideas in a conversation. For your loved one, too many competing ideas can become overwhelming and frustrating to respond to. Simplify it to one idea at a time. 
  • Ask clarifying questions. Make sure any questions you ask are clear and straightforward. Yes or no questions are typically easier to understand on both ends. 
  • Repeat or rephrase. If your question or statement isn’t understood the first time, try breaking it down into smaller sections. 
  • Use visual cues to help. Using a picture or pointing to an object can be highly effective.  


Things to avoid doing and saying 


Below, we’ve outlined a few things that are best to avoid when learning how to talk to someone with dementia. 

Avoid being dismissive or rude. 


  • Avoid getting frustrated. While frustration is normal, remember that both sides of the conversation are likely experiencing the same feeling. It’s best to take a break and regroup later. 
  • Avoid being dismissive in your words, tone, and body language. 
  • Don’t treat your loved one like they aren’t there. Uphold their dignity as a human being. 


Avoid elderspeak


Elderspeak is a simplified speech directed at older adults that resembles baby talk. While some people use this type of speech to address older adults without dementia, it is even more common for those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. 


Elderspeak often includes: 

  • A raised pitch or tone of voice
  • Terms of endearment that weren’t used before the onset of the condition, like ‘sweetie’ or ‘dear.’ 
  • Dramatized speech as seen when talking to infants or children

Speaking to an older adult like they are a child is condescending and inappropriate, as it assumes the person you’re speaking with is weak, helpless and incapable of understanding you. Most times, it’s intended to be helpful and endearing, but typically, it is perceived as frustrating and demoralizing. Speak to the person respectfully as an adult. 


Avoid anxious or triggering topics. 


It’s best to keep your parent, grandparent or loved one calm while communicating with them to ensure a much smoother interaction. If you’re wondering how to talk to someone with early-stage dementia, avoid bringing up triggering topics or using “testing” questions, as this may stress them out. 

  • “Testing” questions like “Remember when?”, “What did you do today/this morning?” or “Do you recognize me?” can feel like you’re testing their memory. While these questions can be genuinely conversational, they may also serve as a harsh reminder of their condition or cause them to feel insecure. A great way to avoid testing questions when sharing an old memory or story is to rephrase “Do you remember when?” as “I remember when…”
  • Past deaths or tragedies. Your loved one may not remember a past death or tragedy, so try to avoid those topics, as they can trigger a resurgence of grief with each new reminder. Depending on the stage of their disease, avoiding any mentions of past trauma can be tricky to handle, so do your best.


Final thoughts 


When interacting with anyone, especially our loved ones, the golden rule always applies – treat people the same way you wish to be treated. Communicating and speaking with someone with dementia can be challenging, but it’s infinitely easier with patience, empathy and perseverance. 

We aim to provide our residents with the best care at Seasons Retirement Communities. If you are looking for a supportive, caring environment for your loved one, consider Seasons. Contact us today to learn more. 


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