When you have dementia, you want to communicate but you lose not only words but commonly forget what you want to say in the middle of trying to say it. The ability to recognize and express yourself gets muddled up in fractured thoughts floating in and out of your mind. Sometimes you know what you want to say but when it comes out of your mouth the words don’t make any sense not even to you. You can see the other person has no idea what you are saying and you begin to feel frustrated and angry.
Eventually you stop trying to communicate and when someone asks you something, you don’t respond or reply with no or don’t know.
Everyone needs to communicate whether you have dementia or not. When we lose the ability to communicate with others, for whatever the reason, a person normally begins to emotionally isolate themselves. This can lead to chronic depression and anxiety especially in the elderly.
To learn how to communicate with a person with dementia takes practice and skill; it’s like learning another language.
What is this language you wonder? Well I can only explain my personal experience and why I seem to be unusually gifted in understanding what they are trying to say.
When I was 23, I moved to Mexico and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. As a young single mom with a small child and it was essential, I learned to communicate as quickly as possible. During the first few months, I used many methods to communicate my needs.
Hispanics are very expressive when speaking and eye to eye contact is essential. they innately mistrust anyone who doesn’t look them in the eye. They do a lot of hand waving, facial expressions, and full body language and I became quickly adept at reading theirs and conveying mine. I memorized words I needed to use each day for shopping, simple one-word sentences with pointing a lot.
I listened to conversations struggling to identify familiar words. Eventually I’d recognize two or three and fill in the meaning of the rest. I used the present tense for everything and I would substitute words I didn’t know with ones I did. English wasn’t spoken in rural Mexico during the 1970s, so after a few months speaking Spanglish, the intense Spanish emersion clicked in and my brain automatically understood and fluently spoke the language and had an empathetic rapport with their culture.
This is the same process when communicating with a person with dementia.
Focus your attention, eye to eye contact, and use and interpret facial expressions and body language; yours and theirs. Speak slowly, clearly, use simple words and point or demonstrate what you are talking about. Ask simple questions, and give them time to respond. Fill in the meaning for yourself when you don’t understand all their words. Ask if they mean this or that. Understanding their non-verbal language creates an empathetic relationship of trust and friendship.
And this is what communicating is really about.