Dementia causes cognitive decline, impacting communication and social skills. However, having thoughtful conversations with people who suffer from dementia is incredibly important for their well-being. Though it can be hard to navigate, it is definitely not impossible — with patience and empathy, anyone can have wonderful conversations and make meaningful connections.
First, it can be helpful to understand what changes dementia can cause. This can prepare you for your conversations. The Alzheimer’s Association’s list of changes you may see includes the following:
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Easily losing a train of thought
- Describing familiar objects rather than calling them by name
- Reverting to speaking a native language
- Relying on gestures more than speaking
- Speaking less often
The following are some important things to consider when having a conversation with someone suffering from dementia:
First and foremost, be patient. Talking to anyone requires active listening and attention, but it can be especially challenging holding a conversation with people suffering from dementia. This does not apply to all people, but with those who may have a hard time keeping up with a conversation, it is incredibly important to show compassion and try to simplify things as much as you can. Do not get distressed or frustrated with the other person if they have a hard time completing a thought or remembering what you are referring to.
Second, remember that what you want is to have a conversation. Ask questions to move the conversation forward, but do not make the other person feel like you are interrogating them. After you ask questions, share your own answers too — a dialogue requires two people, not just one.
Next, ask follow-up questions and share your own stories. That is, don’t be afraid to linger on a story or share similar experiences all revolving around the same topic. If you ask a question that prompts a story, show that you are actively listening by asking questions that allow the other person to elaborate and share more details. Remember to share stories of your own too — it will allow you to connect over a shared experience and takes some of the pressure off the other person.
One thing Conversations to Remember volunteers are reminded to do is always treat each new visit with a senior as though it is the first time that the senor is meeting them, until they know the senior well enough to have learned whether the senior is able to remember them. This is because depending on how much their dementia has progressed, the other person may not remember you or your previous conversations. Keeping the conversation natural, simple, and sharing details between the two of you will foster a positive environment with little pressure to remember certain details. It can help the other person feel more comfortable, which is always one of our goals.
Additionally, understanding is key. If the person you are speaking to has a sudden change in mood or cannot remember the details of the interaction (who you are, where they are, etc.), remember to be calm and patient with them. Simply introduce yourself again if you must, or take a step back and let them talk until they feel comfortable or are in a good mood again. Sometimes, things do not go as planned, and it is your job to accept it and do your best to foster a safe and welcoming environment.
Finally, as a last tip both for the Conversations to Remember program and otherwise: brainstorm conversation topics beforehand and have go-to stories to tell. Not all conversations will flow smoothly — sometimes the person you are trying to talk to will not want to have a conversation, or will simply share less, especially if you are communicating with a stranger (instead of a family member or friend). This is where brainstorming beforehand could be helpful. When the conversation seems to stop, either smoothly transition from your previous topic or, if necessary, jump in with a new story you have prepared. Make sure the story is about a topic you can talk about somewhat extensively — you may need to do most of the talking in these conversations. The Conversations to Remember Instagram account is constantly updated with ideas for conversation topics.
Following these tips, curated by Conversations to Remember, allows anyone to have a pleasant conversation and form a connection with those suffering from dementia, especially if you are interested in participating in weekly calls through Conversations to Remember. But do not feel constrained to these conversation tactics — every person is different, and every conversation will be unique. These are just a few tips that we give to our student volunteers, to help get you started.
Communication and alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/daily-care/communications?fbclid=IwAR1e2K06xxnCGnD4v-pDS1xUXQbwEISy_PoHZ-CN_WCM8RCXDJARUkFWMKw