Overcoming communication barriers due to dementia

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Tom Rotz
Tom Rotz

Everyone knows that as residents progress through the various stages of Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate with them. They might have trouble understanding our words or metaphors we take for granted. 

What we often forget, however, is that it becomes just as difficult for them to communicate with us.

Thankfully, though, we are learning that there are many effective ways that we can improve communication with these residents to help us better understand their wants and needs.

Offer reassurance while showing patience. Although certain residents may have difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings, it still is important for them to do so. We've all been in the frustrating position of trying to put our own thoughts into words, which is the same feeling our residents experience, but on a larger scale. As caregivers, it is vital for us to encourage them to share and to offer them reassurance as they may struggle.

This often requires patience before jumping to any conclusions — or worse, interrupting them. By vocalizing that we are listening and are interested in understanding them better, residents with Alzheimer's or dementia can be more comfortable sharing — even if it takes them a bit longer to finish their thoughts or ask a question.

Avoid arguing and criticism. It is not uncommon for communication delays or difficulties to be followed by periods of frustration, especially as residents with Alzheimer's or dementia are prone to losing their trains of thought. On top of that, these residents often experience a decline in their reasoning skills, causing discrepancies in logic or belief in incorrect facts.

As caregivers, we must avoid arguing due to the negative effect it has on our residents. If a resident believes it's a Tuesday, don't correct them if it's really Friday. In their world, it's Tuesday, and we must meet them where they are. Correcting them, more often than not, will not change their belief, but only lead them to mistrust us and shut down. Or they may grow agitated and angry, as we would when being told something we know to be true is incorrect.

Instead of correcting residents or criticizing them when they are incorrect, try focusing on finding meaning in what they have said. Ask thoughtful questions, and accept their point of view, even though you might be tempted to change it. Even if it isn't a beautiful Tuesday, it still is a beautiful day.

The best advice is to simply put yourself in their shoes. If a resident is absorbed by a certain memory, or is convinced it is 1970, them agree with him or her — go there and be there with them. Supporting residents in embracing their memory will have positive effects on their wellbeing as well as strengthen your relationship with them.

Next time you find yourself in a communication rut with a resident living with Alzheimer's or dementia, try putting these helpful tips into action. Mindfully measure your progress: Are you showing patience? Are you encouraging your resident to share his or her thoughts without criticism or rejection? Are you listening to your best ability? If so, then you're one step closer to mutual understanding.

Tom Rotz is executive director at The Kenwood by Senior Star in Cincinnati.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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