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9 Ways to interact with someone who has dementia

If Mom has been diagnosed with dementia, how you interact with her is likely to change as the disease progresses. Try these strategies to keep the lines of communication open—and to preserve your relationship with her.

1. Be respectful.

Mom is a grown woman, so don’t talk down to her. Baby talking and using names such as “sweetheart” or “honey” may be well-meaning, but they can seem patronizing or demeaning to someone with dementia.

2. Use touch.

Patting Mom’s hand or giving her a hug can show affection without using words. Her dementia can be scary for both of you; being there to give Mom a reassuring hug can be what you both need.

3. Be positive.

When it comes to dementia, there will be good days and bad days. If you can keep a positive attitude, you may be able to help reduce the number of bad days. Smile, make eye contact and use welcoming body language as communication techniques that helps set the tone of your visits.

4. Avoid figures of speech.

One of the earliest signs of dementia is forgetting common phrases and proverbs. Saying things like “Don’t cry over spilled milk” or “It’s raining cats and dogs” will be confusing to Mom. Speak slowly and use the simplest phrasing. If she doesn’t understand the first time, repeat or rephrase your comment.

5. Talk about the past.

Someone with dementia can often remember the past in detail but can’t remember what happened earlier that day. Talking about something Mom remembers can be a soothing activity for her. Bring up a vacation you took together or a favorite restaurant you used to frequent.

6. Respond with affection.

If Mom’s becomes upset or confused, respond with comforting, reassuring words. Validate her feelings and respond with physical and verbal acts of comfort. Sometimes responding positively and then redirecting her attention to another topic or activity can help distract her from the confusion.

7. Simplify questions.

Instead of asking a question with a lot of possible answers, simplify it by giving Mom two options. Instead of saying, “What do you want to do today?” ask “Do you want to go on a walk or do a puzzle?” This makes it easier for her to make a decision with the least amount of confusion.

8. Don’t worry about silence.

You don’t have to fill up your time together with talk. Sitting together in silence, watching TV or listening to music can be equally enjoyable for both of you. Just being there for Mom can mean a lot.

9. Be patient.

Understand that dementia might change the way Mom talks or how she comprehends what you’re saying. Be patient with her when she’s grasping for words or speaking slowly. Don’t interrupt her, as it could come across that what she’s saying doesn’t matter.

It may take some effort to learn to interact with her as her dementia progresses, but it’s worth it. You’ll be helping to enhance your mother’s—and your—quality of life.

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