Support, guidance & advice for todays primary carers
Communicating effectively with a person who has dementia can become an increasing challenge if the person progressively loses their memory and their ability to organise and express their thoughts. For many, the loss of recent memory means that the past begins to merge with the present which can result in difficulties for families and carers of the person living with dementia.
It is important to always communicate respectfully with someone who lives with dementia and experiences things differently to you. There are many different strategies and ways you can respond in a caring way.
Crucially, what works for one person may not work for another so please call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 if you’d like to talk to one of our expert team about how to best care for your loved one. Dementia Australia services include information and education, peer support, psychological support, respite, social support and more.
Below are some options to consider when communicating, using two scenarios.
What if the person living with dementia insisted their car was missing when it was sold decades before and they can no longer drive?
Acknowledge the concern, sometimes it is the feelings behind the questions that are more important to focus on, than the question itself. The loss of a car may mean the loss of control over their life as they can’t come and go as they please. Sometimes enabling a person to increase their sense of control can overcome these issues. This can be achieved by hanging a set of ‘car keys’ on the key rack or enabling the person to have keys in their pocket.
Suggest an alternative option such as “I’m not sure where your car is at the moment but was there somewhere you wanted to go?” Or take your loved one out for a drive to ‘find their missing car’ and during the ride change the conversation topic. You could also stop off for a coffee or take them to do their favourite activity.
Provide reassurance by saying something like, “sounds like this car is really special for you, I would love to know the story about where you bought it, how fast did it go, and the adventures you had.”
Steer the conversation into a different avenue, possibly the younger days of the person living with dementia. If possible, it can be helpful to get some photos of the person in their youth. The conversation may then flow in another direction, which can distract the person living with dementia from their concern or distress.
When a loved one with dementia can’t recall painful events from the past, such as the death of a parent or spouse, reminding them may result in significant distress. Instead, consider using these tactics to respond.
Acknowledge the concern, with a comment like “Your mum can’t be here right now, and it seems like you are missing her.” It can also be good to empathise with the person by acknowledging you miss your family members as well when they aren’t with you.
Suggest an alternative option, such as saying their mother is unable to visit rather than informing the person living with dementia their mum passed away years ago.
Provide reassurance, for example when asked why the person isn’t there, reassure your loved one that their mother is doing well or by saying “I know it’s disappointing for you that your mum isn’t here right now, but I am here because I care about you. There are lots of people who care about you.” Then redirect to looking at family photos (if easily seen) and asking about who the special people are in the photos and redirecting them that way.
Redirection to shift focus. For instance, you can distract your loved one by engaging them in an activity or changing the conversation to another subject, preferably to an activity or hobby the person with dementia enjoys. For example, let’s go outside and have a cup of tea.
It is important to keep track of what works and what does not, to help yourself and others care for the person living with dementia. It can be useful to foster a sense of curiosity when dealing with dementia, being reflective and adaptive, fine tuning constantly, keeping a journal to document what things are effective and what exacerbates situations.
Dementia Australia can support you with timely, reliable and expert information, advice and a wide range of programs to live well with dementia. Call us on 1800 100 500, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year or visit dementia.org.au.
National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500
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