How to Communicate with Someone with Dementia or Alzheimer’s

DemetiaAlzheimer’s and dementia slowly degrade a person’s ability to communicate over time, which can lead to a lot of confusion, frustration, and even danger! As a caretaker to a loved one with dementia, you’ll need to understand what sorts of communication challenges you might face and learn how to effectively communicate with someone with dementia.

Why Communication Is So Hard

In the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, a person may only have slight communication troubles. They may forget words, use simplified words, or occasionally lose their train of thought. However, Alzheimer’s affects the brain in many different ways. Over time, as your loved one moves from early stage Alzheimer’s to middle stage Alzheimer’s they may:

  • Often struggle to find the right words due to diminished memory
  • Make up new words for things and grow frustrated when you don’t understand
  • Get easily distracted by other stimuli during a conversation
  • Lose their train of thought
  • Describe things when they can’t remember the object’s names
  • Speak in their native language, which will be challenging if you don’t speak the language
  • Have trouble understanding what you are saying to them.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, your loved one won’t be able to remember as many words, especially more advanced words. They may also struggle to form complex sentences and stay on topic during a conversation. Finally, they may have difficulty understanding the words you use and following your sentences.

Taken altogether, these communication problems can lead to lots of misunderstanding. Your loved one may be trying to tell you something and grow increasingly frustrated and irritable when you don’t understand. For your part, it can be trying to repeat the same instructions over and over and still have your loved one not totally follow.

The Danger of Poor Communication

Poor communication can turn dangerous when your loved one is unable to tell you when they are in trouble. For example, they may be in a lot of pain from a urinary tract infection (UTI) but be unable to express what is happening to them. On the outside, they may just appear cranky and angry, and you may have no idea that they are in pain and need medical treatment. It can be very difficult to tell if your loved one is dehydrated, is simply tired and needs rest, or is experiencing a medical situation.

What can you do to try and improve communication between you and someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Practice Patience

Slow down the communication process. Really listen to what your loved one is saying and let them fully express their thought. Do not try to interrupt them, correct them, or finish their sentence for them. When you speak, be prepared to repeat yourself as much as needed until they understand.


When you communicate with your loved one, use simple words and short, clear sentences. If you want them to do something, give them step-by-step instructions one instruction at a time. Try using different words or gestures if they don’t seem to understand what you say. You can also show by example or by pantomiming. For example, buckle your own seatbelt to show them that you want them to buckle theirs.

Be Observant

The more time you spend with your loved one, the more you’ll gain an intuitive understanding of them. Since people with Alzheimer’s or dementia get easily confused and can mix up words, they may not be able to tell you what they want. It may be up to you to figure it out using the clues they offer. Over time, you may be able to tell when they are getting tired or understand that they need to use the restroom or drink more water. Do your best to observe their face, behavior, and gestures to see if you can “hear” what they are really saying.

One of the best ways to get great communication tips for someone with Alzheimer’s is to speak with other caregivers who are in the same boat as you. If you live in the Poway/4S Ranch area of San Diego, we invite you to join us for our free monthly caregiver support group at Sunshine Care. The support group is open to the public, so come on down!

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