8 ways to spark a chat with a person who has dementia

Talking used to be easy with the person you love. Now they have dementia it may be harder, but that doesn’t make it impossible. See how you get on with these conversation-starters…

Could this be you?

You like spending time with the person you’re caring for but...

•  The conversation dries up really quickly.
•  You’re always trying to avoid certain subjects that might upset them.
•  They repeat themselves so much that you both get ‘stuck’ saying the same things or they get frustrated.

Don’t worry, you're not alone. Here’s how to move conversations on so that they become more enjoyable for both of you.

1. Get your body language right

Stand or sit so you are both at eye level and they can see your body and facial expressions. Smile and make eye contact. This will help the person with dementia feel at ease, and therefore more likely to open up and chat, even if they don’t quite remember who you are.

2. One at a time

Don’t complicate the conversation with questions that might be tricky to answer or understand. For example, instead of saying ‘what would you like for dinner tonight?’ try ‘Do you want beef or chicken?’ Better still, show them the two options (either by taking them into the kitchen or by showing them pictures) as visual cues can be very helpful.

3. Hold a hand

Words are not always needed. Touch can be a very powerful form of communication. Holding someone’s hand, for example, might tell them instantly that they are safe and you are someone they can trust. A pat on the shoulder can say ‘don’t worry,’ and convey a degree of warmth and closeness far more adeptly than words.

4. Use props

A photo album or some reminiscence tools can be a great way to open up a vivid and enjoyable conversation about the past. Everyone enjoys a trip down memory lane and for people with dementia it has huge therapeutic benefits too, helping them to feel more confident and encourage chatting.

5. Be patient

The conversation may take longer than it used to but that doesn’t mean you should ‘hurry them on’ if they’re stumbling or grasping for words, or try to speak on their behalf. Don’t let frustration get the better of you. Just smile, relax and wait for them to finish what they’re saying. Make a conscious effort to speak more slowly yourself too, and if you realise that you’ve said something quite complicated, try re-phrasing it.

6. Focus on feelings

This is really important when you’re speaking to someone with dementia because sometimes the emotions being expressed are more important than what is actually being said. If the person you love is smiling or laughing as she recounts a story, it isn’t necessary, or helpful, to quibble or correct any factual errors in her account. Instead, focus on the enjoyment the conversation is bringing her and you – right now, and live in the moment.

7. Look and listen

If they’re finding it difficult to communicate verbally, people with dementia might give clues to how they’re feeling in other ways. For example, through facial expressions, movements and gestures. Try to look beyond the words they use and work-out if there’s something else they’re trying to tell you. Are they in pain, feeling sad, worried or agitated? Use picture or photo cards to aid communication.

8. Don’t be afraid of silence

Sitting in comfortable silence with someone you love can be relaxing and comforting for someone with dementia, so don’t feel you have to keep talking. If the silence is too much for you, put on some of their favourite music and listen to it together – you might find it helps you relax, too.