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Do You Speak Dementia? Hero

Do You Speak Dementia?

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Supportive Communication for Caregiving Success

Have you ever travelled to a country where you didn’t speak the native language? Without speaking their language fluently how did you communicate? Did you use hand gestures? Speak in a louder tone? Did you point to Landmarks? 

It’s a challenge to communicate effectively when you don’t speak the same language as the ones you are talking with, wouldn’t you agree? 

For those with a Dementia diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for language disruptions to occur. The early signs of pending compromise tends to be hesitation or mispronouncing words that were normally familiar. 

Sometimes words get misdirected, like when a person says ‘telephone’ while pointing to the television or saying the word ‘door’ when motioning towards the refrigerator. Often, as the Dementia journey progresses, difficulty with language and conversation increases as well. 

There may come a time, when speaking in full or coherent sentences is impossible for someone living with Dementia. ‘Confabulation’ is the jumbling of words or phrases which sounds like ‘gibberish’ or ‘word salad’ to the cognitively in-tact person.  

Therefore, if you are a professional caregiver or a valued family member providing care to someone with Dementia, it’s critical that you learn to ‘Speak Dementia’ effectively. Communicating in a gentle and supportive manner with those living with Dementia instead of constantly correcting, scolding or using a condescending tone; is a fabulous first line of defense to maintain dignity for those in your care. 

Please understand that when the person with Dementia is speaking fluently in ‘word salad – gibberish’ they are unaware. Clearly, they aren’t doing it on purpose. They are truly doing the best they can with the diminishing brain that’s challenging their abilities. 

‘Speaking Dementia’ is a learned skill. It doesn’t come easy to those who are quick to correct or even mock the person mispronouncing words. If you are someone who must always be right or if you must point out the flaws in others first, you will quickly learn how that can backfire when caring for someone with Dementia. 

Each time you belittle, correct or mock someone with Dementia they are internalizing that ‘feeling’ and rest assured those negative feelings will ultimately present in a variety of ways that will challenge your caregiving efforts. 

Because of their language limitations a person with Dementia may not be able to verbally express their discomfort with how you are making them feel. Therefore, their discomfort may turn into resistance to care, combative language, actions or worse. Keep in mind, when a person with Dementia exhibits these types of responses, they are actually communicating! 

Aggressive outbursts, resistance and other combative motions are actually Dementia Communication techniques for someone living with Dementia, when they can’t express themselves verbally. 

Therefore, as Dementia caregivers we must be hyper sensitive in ensuring a loving, calm and welcoming care atmosphere that includes proper communication techniques to ensure successful outcomes for those in our care. 

Here are some tips, to help your efforts: 

  • Avoid correcting. If they ask you to turn on the ‘telephone’ while pointing to the television; no need to correct, simply turn on the television with a smile. If you are a family caregiver and your Mother with Dementia calls you by your siblings name; resist the urge to constantly correct. Instead, cherish the time you are sharing while understanding it’s the Dementia decline that is impacting her abilities. 
  • Smile & Accept. If those in your care are speaking in ‘word salad- gibberish’, don’t focus on their words. Instead, focus on the feeling. Are they smiling while they speak? Do you notice facial expressions, gestures or voice inflection? Pay attention to all of these cues as you maintain eye contact and smile back while nodding your head. This is a much more dignified approach to Dementia communication. 
  • Be Kind. When in doubt simply smile, give a hug or gently hold their hand. Sometimes no words are necessary. Your loving gesture will speak volumes. 

Providing Dementia care can challenge even the strongest soul. However, when you approach the caregiving relationship from a place of kindness and compassion it can positively impact your communication techniques. And, those in your care will be the benefactor of your efforts. 

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  • Written by Ellen Belk

    Ellen Belk, CDP is a ‘Silver’ Living Strategist and Founder of Keep In Mind, a consulting company offering a suite of services to the long term living industry and product developers in the aging space. A recognized Dementia expert specializing in holistic solutions, Belk’s four-pillar philosophy recognizes Communication, Environment, Nutrition and Engagement as a first-line of defense for quality care. She’s the inventor of Memory Magz® which are magazine-style picture publications for those with Dementia. And the author of The 360 System.™ This guide for professionals is based on her copy written TEAM approach for Championship Level Operations and Outcomes in Long Term Living.

    When she finds free time, Belk can be found outdoors, hiking, biking or nurturing her garden. She and her husband Dan live in South Carolina.

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