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How to Talk To A Parent With Dementia

Having a parent with dementia can be stressful and overwhelming for the entire family. After all, it can be heartbreaking to watch your parents struggle, unable to remember the things and the people dearest to them. That’s why you have to make the effort to adapt your relationship and communicate with your beloved parent a little differently.

So, how do you talk to a parent with dementia? Here are a few tips:

  • It’s important to approach conversations gently and calmly.
  • Make sure you’re being as direct as possible and use names instead of pronouns whenever you can.
  • Avoid talking to your parent like they’re a child.
  • Use body language to help convey your feelings and thoughts.
  • Most of all, be understanding and supportive of their limitations.

It takes a little time to get used to talking to a parent with dementia. But, you’re in the position where you need to make changes to keep a good relationship.

So, here are some tips to make communication just a little bit easier on the two of you.

Avoid Getting Frustrated

A dementia diagnosis can be quite frustrating for everybody involved. After all, it can be a little overwhelming to suddenly take over as your parent’s caregiver. That’s especially the case when your parent struggles with seemingly simple daily tasks like bathing and cooking.

It’s natural to get angry, but it’s important to mindfully manage what you do with it. One reason is that people who have dementia are sensitive to your moods.  If they feel afraid of you, for instance, that could have a negative impact on the caregiving and care-receiving relationship that is ideally rooted in trust. – Iona.org

It might take a little time, but it’s important that you work on controlling your frustration and anger. You need to understand that most tasks will be a little more difficult for your parent from this point on. Focus on the positive aspects of your relationship and learn to lower your expectations for what your parent can do for themselves.

But, remember that this is also extremely frustrating for your parent. Once independent, your parent now has to depend on their own child to make it through the day. There’s a significant loss of freedom, and your parent might even be reluctant to accept your help.

Make sure you’re staying calm and understand that your parent isn’t purposely doing or not doing anything to inconvenience you.

Be Direct

You might notice that your parent can’t follow conversations the way they once did. Your parent might become a little distracted or lose the plot in the middle of the story. That’s why it’s more important now than ever that you speak in short sentences and speak quite clearly.

Don’t tell long stories or ask long questions that your parent might not completely understand. Ask quick questions and have a back-and-forth conversation instead of forcing your parent to listen to you for minutes on end.

Being direct also means making eye contact and facing your parent as you speak to them.

A few other tricks I learned as an Occupational Therapist was…

  • Spend 80% to 90% of the conversation on THEM – on what they want to talk about versus what I want to talk about.  This not only gives your parent some control but allows them to talk about what they know.
  • Keeping my voice calm even if they began yelling or over-reacting.  Hard to do sometimes, I know, but very important.
  • Rephrase your question/comment instead of repeating it.  I have witnessed too many adult children repeating the same words over and over and over again wanting their parent to desperately understand them when the truth is, that just was not ever going to happen. 
  • Redirecting their attention to something else if the current situation seems to distress them.

Don’t Talk Down to Them

Even though you are now your parent’s caregiver, that doesn’t mean that you should be speaking down to them in any shape or form. They might not understand everything that you’re saying, but they’re still an adult and are capable of holding conversations (within reason).

And, speaking to your parent as if they’re a child can be quite embarrassing and degrading for your parent.

Don’t Force Overwhelming Conversations

As we mentioned earlier, dementia is frustrating and overwhelming for everybody, including your parent. It can be even more frustrating for them if you try to force conversations that they’re unable to participate in.

If you notice that your parent doesn’t remember a past event or can’t answer a question accurately, don’t keep drilling them with questions in hopes that they remember. This is just an added source of frustration and might even strain your relationship with your parent.

Be aware of when your parent is getting frustrated and quickly refocus to another topic.  Move past the current situation / conversation because truthfully, it will only lead to more frustration (for both of you).

Consider Your Body Language

Humans communicate with words, but body language is perhaps just as important. Even if your parent with dementia doesn’t entirely understand what you’re saying, they might be able to read your body language and pick up what’s going on.

Focus on how you’re carrying and expressing yourself during conversations. If you’re happy when telling a story or asking a question, be sure to smile or laugh when it’s appropriate. If you want to comfort your parent, hold their hand, or give them a hug.

Physical contact can be very important for someone with dementia – depending of course on that particular person.

It might also help to use gestures and point at items and places to draw their attention to something you’re talking about. This can help your parent to associate what you’re talking about with a physical object.

Again, keep direct eye contact with them, face to face communications are usually the best way to keep a conversation going with someone who suffers from dementia. 

Get Rid of Distractions

Along with dementia comes a struggle to maintain focus and avoid distractions. In fact, it might be impossible for your parent to focus 100% when you’re talking to them. That’s why you need to get rid of all types of audio and visual distractions if an important conversation needs to be had with your parent.

That can be anything, from turning off the television or radio to going to a private room where there are fewer people. Give your parent the chance to focus on you and exactly what you’re saying if it’s really important.

But remember that there’s only so much you can do to draw your parent’s attention and focus. Some days will be easier than others, so don’t assume that turning off the television is all your parent needs to focus on what you’re saying.

Leave conversations for a new day if they can wait.

Use a Calm & Gentle Voice

As much as you don’t want to talk down to your parent, you will need to change how you speak to them and your tone of voice. After all, the way you talk to somebody is just as important as what you’re saying to them.

Focus on keeping a calm and gentle voice whenever you’re speaking to your parent. Avoid raising your voice, no matter how angry or frustrated you or your parent become during a conversation. Remember, it’s okay if they don’t understand what you’re saying or remember what you’re talking about.

You might also want to take a little time to yourself when you sense that you’re getting frustrated. This is a great way to allow yourself to cool off a little bit and avoid expressing your frustration toward your parent directly.

Most importantly, remember that this is out of your control. No amount of anger or reminding your parent of a fact will help the situation.

Be Supportive

Supporting your parent is the most important thing you can do to help them through this difficult time. A loss of memory and slowed thinking can be quite embarrassing, so the last thing you want to do is encourage this feeling even more.

One way to be supportive is by placing less stress on the details. It’s okay if your parent doesn’t remember all the minor details of an event or a person. Constantly trying to correct their memory will not only be embarrassing to them but also frustrating on your part.

Be thankful for the time and conversations that you do have with your parent. Try to be open to any conversations they’re willing to have and simply enjoy communicating with your parent.

Some Resources For You

Here are some links to some books that may be helpful for you and your loved one.

Book – When Reasoning No Longer Works: A Practical Guide for Caregivers Dealing with Dementia & Alzheimer’s Care

Book – Dancing with Elephants: Mindfulness Training For Those Living With Dementia, Chronic Illness or an Aging Brain

Book – Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again

Conclusion

When your parent receives a diagnosis of dementia, your relationship will change forever. You have to be willing to change how you communicate with your parent as they cope with this new diagnosis. The most important thing you can do is be as calm and direct as possible and avoid getting frustrated when your parent becomes confused. Remember, this condition is out of your parent’s control, and it’s important that you’re supportive during this tough time.

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