Many people find themselves ‘talking down’ to loved ones with dementia – so how can you show kindness without causing offence? A new scientific study has shown one group of people seem to be getting the balance right...

It often happens because we’re trying to be kind; we raise our voice, talk slowly and add a words such as dear, luv, and darling to emphasis our good intentions. But scientists say that talking to people with dementia in this way could be doing them more harm than good.

Whilst baby talk might be an effective way to communicate with children under two, the same cannot be said for so-called ‘elder speak.’ In fact, it can make people with dementia feel incompetent, isolated and misunderstood.

But if conversation with a loved one is becoming increasingly difficult, you might find yourself slipping into this sort of language, because you don’t know what else to do. So how can you avoid it?

A seven year study by Dr Anna Corwin, a US professor, suggests we can all take inspiration from a rather unusual source; a convent. Dr Corwin carried out a seven-year study in which she observed how the nuns spoke to their fellow Sisters living with dementia.

The nuns used humour, jokes and games to brighten their spirits, and offered massage to calm and distract the Sisters when they were feeling agitated.  Most importantly however, they continued to converse in their usual manner, as if they were still completely capable of understanding, no matter how advanced their condition. Dr Corwin studied nuns from a Midwestern convent from 2008-2013. The nuns with dementia ranged in age from 81 – 92 and they all had limited communication abilities. Dr Corwin recorded more than 100 hours of conversation and rarely heard any trace of patronising language. ‘It is beautiful watching these nuns,’ says Dr Corwin. ‘They see these older adults, even when they’re lying in bed, as whole individuals, they value a person in an inherent way.’

Of course millions of us in the UK have already seen this sort of communication for ourselves on our TV screens. For the past few years viewers of BBC1’s hit series Call The Midwife have watched the nuns of Nonnatus House take Sister Monica’s dementia in their stride; they treat her with respect and dignity, value her moments of clarity, keep her busy with purposeful tasks, such as winding balls of wools and sorting out buttons, always ensuring she’s safe and feels loved. One thing they never do is use demeaning language in her presence…Maybe that’s why her condition has progressed so slowly (she’s deteriorated very little) and Sister Monica remains a vibrant member of her community.

So whatever our religious beliefs perhaps we can all learn something about dementia care from these wise women.


How to care like a Sister

1. Watch your words
You’d never hear Sister Juliene calling Sister Monica, dear, luv, darling, petal, flower, sweetie, pet, hen, duckie. But you might see them both...

2. Playing a game
Board games and puzzles are a great way to make a person with dementia feel included and stimulated. We have lots you could both enjoy here  

3. Singing
The power of music in dementia care is well established. For songs to bring back happy memories go here

4. Keeping busy
Whether she’s winding wool, watching her favourite TV show, or helping herself to cake, Sister Monica is never idle. For more ways to keep busy go here

5. Praying
Religion often remains extremely important to people with dementia, here’s how to help them keep practising their faith