How to Communicate with People with Dementia: Creativity Goes a Long Way

Dementia affects more than 5.8 million people in the United States, according to the CDC. It can be very mild or severe. But experts uniformly caution us not to infantilize or talk down to those with dementia when you wish to communicate. In this week’s Wall Street Journal, Dr. Anne Basting, author of Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia with Elder Care, offers a unique approach. She says, “Use imagination as a language…”

According to Dr. Basting, the key is not to ask questions that force people to try to remember facts. Instead, “invite what’s still there rather than get stuck on what’s missing.” That includes encouraging people to express themselves freely without worrying about right or wrong answers to questions. “For people who’ve been shut down, the arts can be a lifeline, an invitation back into the world.” She recommends storytelling, song, and art, for example – in other words, “shifting to emotional communication.”

“Many things can bring joy, including focusing on the ‘now’ with loved ones,” advises Elizabeth Landsverk, M.D., author of Living in the Moment: A Guide to Overcoming Challenges and Finding Moments of Joy in Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, who was quoted in an AARP Magazine article this month. “They may no longer be able to paint pictures, but maybe they can make collages.” Eating in a restaurant might be problematic but sharing a picnic lunch or dinner might be a good substitute. Music and singing together is another great option. “I’ve seen people who cannot answer questions sing church hymns perfectly,” she adds.

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests keeping conversation simple, addressing one topic at a time, and not jumping in after you’ve asked a question but letting the person think for a moment. The key is to stay positive, and above all, be creative.

When an in-person visit to a loved one is not possible, Zoom or Facetime can be good substitutes. “But living in this digital age sometimes can be a challenge for those with dementia,” notes John Mastronardi, Executive Director of the Nathaniel Witherell. “You want to maintain a connection without the person becoming confused or overwhelmed.”

He suggests a few things you can do when you are “on camera”: wave, speak with your hands, smile, hold objects you’re speaking about, gesture (like hand on heart), sing, or point to something. And if your loved one begins to reminisce but gets the facts wrong, suspend reality. “Sometimes it’s best not to try to correct an incorrect recollection as no one wants to be told they’re wrong,” Mastronardi says.

Also, ask open-ended questions. As Dr. Basting notes: “The most important thing to remember is that every person has the capacity to imagine and be creative throughout life. I once asked a man who had no language left, ‘Can you show me how water moves?’ He danced for about half an hour.”

For information about the Witherell’s Memory Care services, please call 203-618-4247.





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