Juliet Holt Klinger, MA, Expert on Dementia Care

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09 December 2019

As I plan my calendar for the next couple of months, I know that some of my holiday plans will include friends and family living with cognitive changes including dementia.  The holidays are a time for celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. In fact, it may be the only time of year you spend time with some people in your life. If you’re visiting or reconnecting with a friend or loved one who is living with dementia, you may face some communication challenges. But don’t let that keep you from connecting. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome those challenges and have engaging conversations, stay connected and maintain your relationship.

  1. Create an inviting space to talk.

First, it’s important to create an environment where you can set everyone up for success. People living with dementia may face several symptoms that make communication difficult. Whenever possible, have conversations in a quiet space with fewer distractions and pressures. Turn off the TV or other electronics so you can both focus on each other and your conversation. Establishing and maintaining eye contact during the conversation can also help.

Remember that your body language and facial expressions can communicate more than your words. It is also important to note that persons living with dementia in its early stages may use language better than they receive language. Because this is not always visible, it’s important to use some of the techniques described here to ensure connection.

  1. Set the tone.

What you say and how you say it are important when communicating with anyone, but it’s especially true when you’re talking with someone living with dementia. As you speak, try to remember to:

  • Go slow and use simple, understandable words and sentences. Allow the person plenty of time to respond.
  • Be brief and to the point. A person living with dementia could become distracted, confused or lose interest in a long monologue.
  • Be specific and refer to people and objects by their names, rather than by general pronouns that could be misinterpreted.
  • Avoid open-ended questions. Yes-or-no questions can help keep a person living with dementia focused on giving a simple response. For example, instead of asking “What do you want for dinner?” try “Would you like chicken for dinner?”
  1. Be patient.

Meet a person living with dementia where he or she is in the moment. Remember that your loved one is not to blame for his or her communication challenges and they’re not trying to be difficult; they’re doing the best job they can.

  1. Stay in the moment.

If a person living with dementia gets confused about details, roll with it and avoid correcting them. If you make small adjustments in how you communicate, you make the most of every conversation.

  1. Remember, connections matter.

Try not to forget during the rush of the holiday season that staying connected to others and remaining socially engaged is very important for loved ones living with dementia. The holidays offer a unique opportunity to talk about old memories with your loved one, or get out old photo albums or even play and sing holiday songs. Just remember not to quiz them about names and relationships.

A person living with dementia may need you to speak slower, provide more detailed explanations or occasionally repeat what you’ve said. They may have a better experience in a quiet restaurant or prefer to watch a movie at their home rather than in a theater. But don’t let their diagnosis be a reason to avoid spending time together. You can still do a lot of the activities you’ve always enjoyed. You just may have to get a little creative in how you do them and be open to making adjustments, especially during the holidays.

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