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May 23, 2022

Tips for Talking to Someone With Dementia: Conversation Starters and Questions to Ask

Dementia can be a devastating illness for older adults. This condition affects your cognitive abilities, your language skills, your personality, and so many other areas of your life. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s or dementia, you may struggle to connect with them or communicate with them.

Social interaction is incredibly important for maintaining quality of life in seniors, but it can be difficult to figure out what to say to a friend or family member with dementia.

While dementia has some common symptoms that most people with the condition experience, no two people are exactly the same. Some individuals may become more talkative as they move through the stages of dementia, and others may become much more withdrawn. You know your loved one, and you should trust your instincts when thinking of conversation starters.

However, there are some helpful strategies and topics you can keep in mind if you’re unsure of what to say.

Conversation starters for individuals with dementia

Depending on how far the condition has progressed, a person with dementia may struggle with open-ended questions. Dementia can affect your abstract thinking skills, so generating an answer to a question completely independently can be very difficult.

If open-ended questions aren’t helpful for starting a conversation with an individual, try to give the person options or stick to “yes” or “no” questions. For example, you could ask them if they prefer spending time outdoors or staying inside.

If possible, though, open-ended questions can be an excellent opportunity for a person with dementia to express themselves. You don’t have to ask exceptionally deep or thoughtful questions to have a meaningful conversation. Instead, you can simply create opportunities for the person to reflect and reminisce.

Here are some ideas for conversation starters:

  • Did you grow up with brothers or sisters?
  • What was your favorite thing to do as a teenager?
  • What kind of music do you like to listen to?
  • Tell me about your children.
  • Do you have any pets?
  • What was your first job?
  • Where have you traveled?
  • Did you ever play sports in school?
  • What is the best lesson you learned from your parents?
  • Was your mom or dad good at cooking? What kind of meals did they make?
  • What is your proudest accomplishment?
  • I have a funny story to tell you about my day…

Tips for talking to someone with dementia

Engaging in a conversation with someone with dementia can be quite different from talking to someone in good cognitive health. Here are some of the most important tips to keep in mind.

  • Reduce distractions.

Staying focused on a conversation can be challenging in the presence of a noisy TV or activity outside the window. To avoid overwhelming the individual, try to eliminate those distractions by turning off the TV and drawing the curtains. Alternatively, you could leave a noisy room to find a quieter place to talk.

  • Be personal.

You should make extra effort to connect with someone if they have dementia. Look them in the eye when talking to them, and use their name frequently throughout the conversation. Try to empathize with the emotions behind their words so that they feel seen and validated. Even if their statements don’t entirely make sense, you can still listen earnestly and acknowledge their feelings.

  • Keep it simple.

Following a conversation is not easy when you have dementia, especially when the other person bounces from topic to topic or rushes through their words.

Slow down your speech, try to stick with one topic, and give the individual plenty of time to form their response. If they get lost mid-thought or struggle to respond, ask them a follow-up question to jog their memory instead of finishing their sentence for them.

  • Don’t dismiss what they say.

Not everything you hear from someone with dementia will be perfectly coherent or logical, particularly when the individual is in the later stages of the condition. Telling them that they’re wrong can lead to agitation, though. Instead of disagreeing with the person, acknowledge the emotion behind what they say, and try to redirect their attention to another topic.

Starting and maintaining a conversation with someone with dementia may feel tricky at first, but this is a skill that you can develop with time. What’s most important is that you keep your sense of empathy and compassion at the forefront of your mind. Just like anyone else, a person with dementia deserves to be heard, and you can make a big difference in their quality of life by offering a listening ear.

The memory care neighborhood at Springpoint Living at Manalapan is a safe, supportive, and secure environment for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Schedule a visit to find out more.

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