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How to Talk to a Parent Who Has Dementia: Say This, Not This

When a parent is diagnosed with dementia, it puts an immense burden on both of your shoulders as you try to comprehend what’s happening and grapple with the limitations facing both of you.

This is a challenging time and will become more so over time. However, there are things you can do to keep the connection with your loved one as strong as possible for as long as possible. At the heart of this is finding ways to keep your interactions moving in positive directions that are respectful and caring. Here are some tips to make conversing with mom or dad more positive and productive.  

  • Keep distractions away. Peripheral noises, music and voices can be confusing and anxiety inducing. Try to find a quiet place to converse with mom or dad.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Sit close to your loved one so that you don’t have to talk loudly. Speak clearly and calmly. Pause between your sentences. Give mom a chance to take in what you have said.
  • Use visual cues. It can be helpful to share old photos or old favorite songs as a centerpiece for conversation.
  • Use the sense of touch. Sometimes simply taking dad’s hand will have a greater impact than words. Don’t be afraid to hold his hand and establish eye contact. It will have a soothing and calming effect on both of you.
  • Do not “quiz”. There is a tendency to use phrases like “Don’t you remember?” or “Now, who is this?”, which can be threatening to your loved one and cause unnecessary anxiety. Instead show mom a photo and say “Oh remember when dad did this? Wasn’t that funny!” Make it more conversational and less interrogatory.
  • Do not talk down to them. It’s easy to fall into the habit of speaking to your loved one as a child. But you must remind yourself that is the illness that is impairing their ability to communicate. When you treat mom as the adult she is, it actually makes it easier on you as well.
  • Keep impatience and anger in check. Lashing out with phrases like “I just told you that,” or “You’re wrong” will only lead to anxiety and will make any situation much worse.  
  • Don’t be afraid of silences. Yes, there will be lulls in the conversation, even for those whose mom or dad was once very talkative before the illness set in. Relax into those moments of silence. Realize that silence can have a calming effect.

Remember, too, that you need to adjust your expectations. Those days of fast back and forth banter that used to come so easily between you will now require more focus and concentration. There will be periods of time when your parent seems much more forgetful and more confused. However, by changing the way you approach each interaction, you will find it easier to push beyond the difficult moments and make the most of the good ones.

Above all, don’t attempt to take this journey alone. Consider joining a dementia support group where you can share your worries and concerns with others who understand, first hand, your challenges.

This is a new chapter in your life. With a little understanding and finding new, positive ways to communicate, you can take steps towards creating a new relationship that still has value for both of you.