Communicating effectively with someone with dementia benefits the individual and their care partner and can help with what might be a complex relationship.

Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, can result in memory loss, difficulty with language, and impaired reasoning skills to a level that interferes with a person’s daily life. It can involve personality changes and challenges with emotions.

Jenny Carr and Aynsley Moorhouse, mental health clinicians at Sinai Health’s Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training, offer five supportive approaches for care partners:

1. Simplify

Reduce distractions of background noises. Ensure they can see and hear you clearly and use their name and make eye contact. Difficulty understanding the actual conversation may appear to be about hearing, but often is not. “There are changes in how a person with dementia processes the input from the world and makes sense of words,” says Jenny. Avoid open-ended questions like asking what they would like to do and instead make a suggestion and gently guide them to an activity such as going for a walk. During activities, refer to things by their actual name to help the person focus their attention, for example, on a ‘bird’ instead of ‘it’.

2. Enter their world

Tune into their reality and emotional state. Each exchange between a person with dementia and their care partner is often complex and may depend on the pre-existing relationship, which can make things difficult for both the care partner and care recipient. “There may be a spectrum of feelings from grief, love, anger to none at all in the caregiving relationship. “Do your best to recognize and acknowledge uncomfortable emotions such as frustration or sadness. This will help the person feel heard and understood,” says Aynsley.

3. Avoid conflict

Arguing with a person with dementia will make you both frustrated and upset. Logic may not work with the person with dementia. Recognize when to walk away from an escalating conflict. Avoiding comments such as ‘I just told you that,’ or ‘You’re wrong’, will help lessen the risk of arguments. Do your best to exercise patience when talking with them. Try not to rush or to complete their sentences. At the Reitman Centre, the teams often advise, ‘Connect, don’t correct’.

4. Use and look for cues

Get creative with your communication. Pay attention to the person’s facial expressions, tone of voice or physical cues such as body position, overall body language and gestures that might help you better understand their needs.

5. Self-care and slow the pace

Caring for someone with dementia can be challenging, but you are essential to their welfare. “We know it is easier said than done, but try to take care of yourself. Make even a little bit of time to do something that you enjoy and that is just for you, and take breaks,” says Aynsley. She and Jenny recommend reaching out for support especially during the pandemic. These breaks and accessing resources can allow for more self-compassion and acceptance in your role as a care partner.

The Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training is the provincial hub for the Enhancing Care Program, part of the Ontario Dementia Strategy funded by the Ministry of Health. Visit the Reitman Centre for more resources.