Updated 9/16/17

Communication Isn’t Impossible

Many people are under the mistaken impression that once someone living with dementia reaches a certain point in the disease process, communication is impossible.

Happily, that’s not true. However, effective communication does require thinking about (and doing) it differently.

Check out the following 7 ways to help you knock it out of the park every time.

Want concrete tips and strategies? Get your free guide Communication Tips & Strategies for Dementia Care Partners.


It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

Communication is about way more than verbalizing! Whether your listener has cognitive loss or not, she’s watching for facial cues, body language, and tone of voice for context. The content of what you say is actually the least important part of the whole interaction.

Go for a big smile, open body language, and positive tone of voice. This is doubly true for anyone who changed your diaper: lose the impatient +/ snarky tone ASAP! Your mom may not physically be able to pull it off, but you don’t want her feeling like she’s ready to march you behind the proverbial woodshed.


As the intellect recedes, the emotional center comes to the forefront.

Your parent is going to connect to you on an energetic level. Remind yourself to leave your long day at the office behind and take a deep breath before going inside to visit. Make a conscious decision to bring respect, kindness, and love to the interaction.


Show, rather than tell.

Hearing loss is highly correlated with dementia. Additionally, it takes a cognitively impaired brain longer to “warm up” and attach meaning to spoken words. So whether your parent has hearing loss or not, use your words while making eye contact but show what you mean, too.


Front and center.

Peripheral vision loss is also a problem, so make sure you approach from the front.


This isn’t Jeopardy!

I know you would never be a jerk and make the visit all about you, quizzing your mom on who you are and what your name is and what she did today and what she ate and who else visited, all in the span of 15 seconds.

But if other people in your family do, tell them to cut it out. It’s confusing and annoying for your parent.


Be generous and save the day.

It’s always okay to say something like, “Hey, Dad, it’s Christy!” as you’re approaching, or “Looks like Barbara and Larry got back from their trip to Sedona. Let’s ask them how they liked it” as they approach, cueing your parent on whom it is and an appropriate topic of conversation.

Don’t think your parent “should” know friends of 40+ years–this is dementia we’re talking about, right?


Don’t underestimate physical contact.

Physical contact is a quick way to connect and create positive feelings. A hug, shoulder rub, hand squeeze, even just sitting next to each other in companionable silence…all of this communicates how you feel. And really, isn’t that more important than your dad recounting his day to you?

What works for you? Have you tried any of these ideas? Share your experience in the comments.


Want concrete tips and strategies? Get your free guide Communication Tips & Strategies for Dementia Care Partners.


Christy Turner is the founder of DementiaSherpa.com and has enjoyed the privilege of working with 1,123 people living with dementia and their families. Follow on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. Content varies across platforms.