The first set of tips relate to any general conversation with someone who has dementia:

  • Don’t stop trying!
  • Do use their name to capture attention.
  • If the person is finding it difficult to concentrate, reduce distractions (e.g. turn down/off the radio or TV).
  • Position yourself where the person can see you as clearly as possible and try to be on the same level as the person, rather than standing over them.
  • Make sure your body language is open and relaxed. Remember your face and posture tell their own story.

How to speak

  • Speak clearly and calmly. Stay calm even if the conversation becomes frustrating.
  • Speak at a slightly slower pace, and allow time between sentences for the person to process the information and respond. This might seem like an uncomfortable pause to you, but it is important for helping the person to communicate.
  • Try not to interrupt the person speaking.
  • Avoid speaking sharply or raising your voice.
  • Avoid criticising or correcting and repeat what you have said if something needs to be clarified.
  • Focus on feelings rather than facts.
  • Avoid using the word ‘No’. In fact, avoid negative statements in general.
  • Use short, simple sentences.
  • Try to communicate with the person in a conversational way, not question after question (it can feel like an interrogation).
  • Don’t talk about the person as if they are not there or talk to them as you would to a young child – be patient and have respect for them.
  • Try to laugh together about misunderstandings and mistakes – it can help. Humour can help to bring you closer together, and may relieve the pressure. However, be sensitive to the person and don’t laugh at them.
  • Include the person in conversations with others. This may be easier if you adapt what you say slightly. Being included can help a person with dementia to keep their sense of identity and feel they are valued. It can also help to reduce feelings of exclusion and isolation.

What to say

  • Try to avoid asking too many questions, or complicated questions. People with dementia can become frustrated or withdrawn if they can’t find the answer.
  • Try to stick to one idea at a time. Giving someone a choice is important, but too many options can be confusing and frustrating.
  • If the person is finding it hard to understand, consider breaking down what you’re saying into smaller chunks so that it is more manageable.
  • Ask questions one at a time, and phrase them in a way that allows for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer (eg rather than asking someone what they would like to do, ask if they would like to go for a walk) or in a way that gives the person a choice (eg ‘would you like tea or coffee?’).
  • Use people’s names or nouns when referring to people (e.g. Anne, Paul, the doctor). Avoid using pronouns such as him/her/he/she/they that mean the person with dementia has to remember who it was that you were talking about.
  • Use nouns when referring to objects: the table, the steps … rather than ‘over there’ or ‘in here’. Be as specific as possible and if one noun isn’t understood (e.g. stairs) try another (e.g. steps).

For those conversations that need to be planned:

  • Make sure you’re in a good place to talk – quiet, and without too many distractions (eg no radio or TV on in the background).
  • Get the person’s full attention before you start.
  • Position yourself where the person can see you as clearly as possible and try to be on the same level as the person, rather than standing over them.
  • Sit close to the person (although not so close you are in their personal space) and make eye contact.
  • Make sure your body language is open and relaxed.
  • Have enough time to spend with the person.
  • If there is a time of day where the person will be more able to communicate (eg in the morning) try to use this time to ask any questions or talk about anything you need to.
  • Make the most of ‘good’ days and avoid having important or critical conversations on ‘bad’ ones.

These notes have been adapted from The Alzheimer Society UK Tips for Communicating with People with Dementia (2018)

Other useful leaflets can be downloaded below:

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland Communication Factsheet (handout given at the Cafe) – click here to download.

The Alzheimer’s Association (USA) Communication Booklet – click here to download.

A caregivers’ guide to understanding dementia behaviours: click here to download