There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to keep rising. In Dementia Action Week, we look at how to break down communication barriers and stay close to those we love
You arrive at the care home, take your mum’s hand and ask her how she is. You’re chatting about the weather and telling her what the grandchildren have been up to, when suddenly she turns to you and says: ‘That’s all very nice, dear, but my daughter will be arriving soon…’
Dementia is challenging and heartbreaking.
According to reports, it’s the disease that people over 50 fear the most.
But, sadly, the number of people with dementia is projected to increase rapidly over the next few decades.
Your loved one might not always know where they are, what year it is or even who you are. It can leave you feeling helpless as you don’t know how to help — or even how to converse with them without upsetting or disorientating them further.
However, Research Professor in Language and Communication at Cardiff University, Alison Wray, says there are steps we can take to improve communication.
Get beneath the surface of what they are really trying to say
Alison says: ‘When someone has dementia, it can become difficult for them to express what they need. For example, if they say: “I want to go home to my mother”, that might give you a sense that they’re feeling insecure.
‘Instead of replying: “I’m so sorry but your mother died”, which could put them through a traumatic experience of grief, think about how you can help them to feel less insecure.
‘You might say: “What would you do if you saw your mum now? Would you give her a big hug?” Then offer a hug.
‘Similarly, if they say: “I want to go home”, instead of saying: “But you are home!” you could ask: “What is it about here that doesn’t feel like home?”
‘There might be an unfamiliar sound that’s making them feel uneasy. Once you understand what it is they need to change, you can work out how to help.’
Be mindful of your responses
Alison says: ‘Always think about what you’re trying to achieve from the conversation.
‘Is it about showing them you are right and they are wrong? Or is it about helping them to feel loved and secure? For example, if the person with dementia says: “I’ve never been to the seaside”, and you know they have — is it crucial to correct them? Or if, when you visit, you’re not sure if they’ve recognised you, do you need to say: “Mum, it’s me, your daughter!” which could lead to them feeling upset or embarrassed.
‘Is there a way you can slip some information into the conversation? For example, you might say: “How’s my lovely mum today?”’
Alison says: ‘If you’re struggling to communicate, there are other ways you can still engage.
‘Look into their eyes, take their hand and sit quietly with them or just sing them a quiet song. You might feel embarrassed, but try not to make the situation about you.
‘Above all, be kind — not just generous with your time, but truly kind. It’s very easy when communication doesn’t work to get defensive and snap.
‘We don’t mean to lose our patience and we feel terrible afterwards. But being truly kind will go a long way to making things work better.’
Alison says: ‘It’s easy to blame the person rather than the disease. Ask yourself: Is there a way I can manage what’s happening here and work out useful ways of approaching the situation?
‘Don’t be afraid to experiment with new approaches to help give your loved one the best experience you can.’
Edited by Stephanie May
To find out more, search ‘Dementia — The ‘Communication disease’ on YouTube.