Dementia Speaks: Are We Listening?

Far too many dementia clients have vivid ideas and desires but are unable to express them verbally. For the millions of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, communication is a challenge. The simple beauty of interpersonal expression that we often take for granted gradually becomes impossible as the parts of the brain that manage word production are affected by the disease. When words fail us, it becomes impossible to share our thoughts, needs, and desires. It becomes easy to pull away verbally and emotionally.

As supporters and advocates, understanding this fact can help us grow determination for meeting minds with our loved one. We must learn new ways to speak and to listen. By showing the person with dementia that we have sincere desire to understand them we cultivate trust that goes a long way toward reassuring hope, providing comfort and preventing emotional withdrawal.

Changing the way we listen is a choice. Create space and time for your loved one to find and form their words, patience helps them to relax and disarm frustration. Use clarifying questions to support efforts: “Are you wondering when dinner will be ready?”

Use positive touch, eye contact, empathic tone, thoughtful facial expressions and welcoming body language to show that you are present and willing to understand.

Keep it simple. A person with dementia can not retain much new information, keep instructions to three steps or less, patiently partnering with the person to complete each step.

Live in the moment. Expect repeat questions. Avoid correcting memory or prompting memory with phrases like, “do you remember we agreed to” or restating what happened recently. This almost always leads to frustration.

Focus on the positive. According to dementia care expert David Troxel, persons with dementia are often unable to be self-affirming. As a result of loss of insight, language, and memory they need affirmation in small, consistent doses throughout the day. Look for opportunities to make a positive difference that ultimately elevates the quality of life for you and for them.


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