Communicating with a person living with dementia

Learn to understand the person.

dementia, Alzheimer’s Australia, mental health, wellbeing

In any conversation, messages, both verbal and non-verbal, are being exchanged. As we converse, we not only use gestures, facial expressions and body language to convey our meaning, but we also ‘read’ the other person while we listen to their words. However, we do not always do this accurately.

This can be compounded if language skills are lost and the person with dementia is operating at an emotional level. Therefore, if we want to ensure that the person with dementia has understood our message, as well as understanding what they are saying to us, our communication skills need to improve. Research into communication of feelings and attitudes show that 55% of a message is conveyed by body language, 38% by the tone and pitch used and only 7% by the actual words used (Mehrabian, 2007).

No matter what we choose to do, we need to remember that spending time with someone is a two-way process. We give and receive in turn. This should be the foundation of activities for purpose and pleasure for people living with dementia.

To help this process of communication it is important to understand the person, their likes and dislikes, as well as who they are and what they have achieved in their life. This will assist in knowing how best to communicate with them. In addition to this, summarised below are some useful tips and suggestions to assist the flow of communication.

Using a positive communication approach:

Caring attitude

  • Maintain eye contact, nod in sympathy and listen with your eyes and ears;
  • Always maintain a person’s dignity and self esteem;
  • Where appropriate use touch to keep the person’s attention and to communicate feelings of warmth and affection.

Ways of talking

  • Remain calm and talk in a matter of fact way;
  • Keep sentences short and simple and focus on one idea at a time;
  • Allow plenty of time for what you say to be understood and adequate time for a response. Don’t rush despite your busy schedule.

Body language

  • Ensure that your facial expression and tone of voice match what you are trying to say;
  • Use hand gestures and facial expressions to make yourself understood;
  • Pointing or demonstrating may help;
  • Touching and holding a person’s hand may help keep their attention and show them that you care;
  • A warm smile and shared laughter can often communicate more than words.

The right environment

  • Try to avoid competing noises such as TV or radio;
  • If you remain still while speaking, you will be easier to follow, especially if you stay in the person’s line of vision;
  • Maintain regular routines to help minimise confusion and assist communication;
  • Set up accessible, help-yourself spaces, cupboards, drawers and shelves for independent activity. Include jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, magazines, hobby and craft items and interesting bits and pieces for sorting and handling.


Click NEXT to find out what not to do, and to read the seven ways you can mind your mind

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