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Tips to Understanding Communication for Caregivers

Think about all of the ways we communicate with others each day. This may include verbal communication, such as phone, video, or in-person conversations. It may also include written communication, such as emails, letters, or text messages. But our communication isn’t limited to words. I also communicate without words when I give a hug to friend, share a smile with a colleague, or give a wave to a neighbor. I communicate a very different message when I use an impatient tone with my spouse or don’t give my parents my full attention when they are speaking. We all communicate in so many different ways, and usually we don’t even think about it.  Much of this comes naturally to us…so why is it so different for a person living with dementia? I think it comes down to understanding. When someone is living with dementia, their brain is changing in many ways, including their ability to communicate in ways we previously took for granted. Common symptoms in all dementias include progressive memory loss, language problems, and poor coping skills, just to name a few.  All of these can be very frustrating to the person living with dementia.  The stage of the disease will also play a big impact on how the person can communicate their thoughts and needs, as well as how they receive messages in communication.Start with the Basics:

  1. Approach from the front to prevent startling the person
  2. Gain and hold eye contact  (get down to eye level if needed)
  3. Call them by their preferred name and state your name or relationship
  4. Put out a gesture, but let them initiate touch
  5. Give directions one step at a time

As a family caregiver, you have an advantage because you know your loved one best, including how they best communicate.  Structure and routine are immensely helpful, so try to do things around the same time and in the same order from day to day. Knowing your loved one’s routine and sticking to that routine allows them to be the most successful. Having structure throughout the day reduces those moments of confusion about what to do next, which often leads to challenging behaviors. Remember to simplify when needed, including giving limited options and asking one question at a time. Reminiscing is a great tool for conversation. Talk about beloved family members or one of their favorite memories. Hand gestures and facial expressions can be a great way to reinforce your message.  Give the person enough time, as it can take up to 90 seconds for the person to process and respond. Consider the best time of day for your loved one. If their confusion increases in the evening, that may not be the best time to initiate a bath. It is important for us to try to understand and join their world. Remember, we never want to argue with the person or correct them, which only causes more frustration for both of you. It is up to us as caregivers to learn to go with the flow. When the person living with the disease can’t change what is happening to them, WE have to be the ones to adjust.

Written by Anita Irvin
Executive Director of Insight Memory Care Center