Communicating with a loved one living with dementia

“I just don’t know how to talk with him anymore,” reports a wife talking about her spouse who has dementia. “He doesn’t seem to understand me.”

Communication is a big issue for many family members of people who suffer from memory loss. It can be extremely frustrating and heartbreaking when they are unable to communicate with their loved ones like they used to.

The ability to communicate with others is fundamental for a relationship to thrive. Often, we do it unconsciously and expect others to understand us unequivocally. Basic communication consists of verbal and nonverbal expression. People with dementia often cannot understand basic verbal expression but may pick up on body language or tone of voice. Thus if you are trying to have a conversation with someone who has dementia, the verbal information might be missed.

Many families are forced to relearn how to communicate with a loved one who has memory loss. It takes time and energy to try new skills to get your point across. The things you try may work some of the time or not at all. But you have license to keep trying because the person with dementia may not remember that what you had tried before did not work.

It also becomes hard when you are grieving the loss of what had been. If your long-time spouse’s ability to talk with you erodes, how do you change your communication style while grieving that loss? The ability to change the communication style, after all, rests with the person who does not have dementia.

This is where I am in complete awe of my clients and their families. They go through loss while actively searching for successful ways to communicate with their loved ones. They learn that arguing their point at times is futile. The usual purpose of an argument or disagreement is to get your point across to someone else. But when that person has memory loss, he may not understand or even forget your point of view. Families also learn that simpler, shorter words can be more easily understood.

“Speaking to the feeling,” coined by Wendy Lustbader, MSW, author of “Counting on Kindness,” helps us to recognize the importance of what is going on for someone nonverbally. The expression of feelings is often more meaningful to a person with memory loss than verbal dialogue. And the use of humor can also be helpful, as trying to communicate differently may not always be successful.

These changes in communication can be helpful and do need practice. And yes, we will not be perfect every time. But the rewards from trying new ways to communicate can be the lessening of frustration and anxiety for both you and your loved one with dementia.

Betsy Zuber, a geriatric specialist, has been working in the field of aging for 18 years. She provides social services to people 55+ and their families who live on Mercer Island. Please contact her at (206) 275-7752, e-mail or mail MIYFS 2040 84th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island, WA 98040. Mercer Island Youth & Family Services is a department of the City of Mercer Island.

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