Communication in dementia

When you or a member of your family is diagnosed with dementia, there are a lot of important issues to consider. One of the key areas to think about is communication. In some dementias, a significant difficulty finding the words might be one of the first signs of a specific dementia known as Primary Progressive Aphasia. For others, communication could become difficult due to cognitive changes which affect behaviour, personality and mood.

Anybody with dementia or helping somebody with dementia will recognise these changes. Communication problems occur in all forms of dementia and in the later stages these problems become increasingly challenging, (Bourgeois, 2010).

Communication is vital in enabling us to express our needs, feelings and thoughts. This transfer of information, also called ‘transactions’, allow us to make decisions, regulate our behaviour and make choices – all skills required to maintain our independence and autonomy.

Are there any other functions of communication?

Absolutely, communication is how we connect with those around us, express our personality and maintain relationships. This may be through verbal or non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is the words we speak, how we say them and the words we choose to use. Non-verbal communication accounts for up to 70% of our overall communication and includes aspects such as tone of voice, facial expression and body language. However, when communication becomes more difficult, the impact on relationships and quality of life can be challenging for the individual, their family and friends.

“Communication difficulty can be exhausting for the person with dementia and affects their identity and relationships” (Bryden, 2005).

Can therapy help?

There is a growing body of evidence exploring how therapy can help improve the person’s communication, with some studies showing favourable results. This is especially so where the emphasis is based on developing strategies to help the person and their carer compensate for the difficulties, (Kindell, J et al 2017).

Furthermore, it is also helpful to consider that as well as identifying ways to support direct communication with people with dementia, finding ways to INTERACT with them is just as vital. Interaction is about connecting with another person, engaging in an activity without the need to convey a specific message.

As Kindell states: ‘….connecting with people with dementia does not have to rest solely upon the transfer of information. In terms of support, activities and care, focusing on interactive abilities provides important ways to enhance social connections’.

What can you do?

There are lots of activities that a person with dementia can be encouraged to engage in.
The key is, just do a few minutes at a time, especially to begin with.

  1. Play a simple board game – how about digging out the snakes and ladders or dominoes? It doesn’t matter about winning, play alongside each other and help each other out!
  2. Try dominoes or Connect 4. Again, it doesn’t matter if making a line of four matching colours is too difficult, enjoy the activity together.
  3. Colouring – there are lots of colouring books on the market, for people of all colouring abilities. Make sure to choose one that matches the interests and abilities for you and the other person you are interacting with.
  4. Listen to some music or a play together.
  5. Read aloud to one another. You only need to read a short piece if that is all that can be managed. Consider materiel such as short poems, snippets from magazines or short articles from newspapers or paragraphs from well-known books. Some classic books such as, ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ are often well received.
    Some websites have some useful information and resources for suitable reading material:
  6. Have a go at wordsearches. Choose the level that is appropriate for you or the person you are with. You can either buy a book or some websites provide free resources:
  7. Spend time making a memory box together, collecting pictures, postcards, letters, photographs and objects that remind you of events from the past. For example, have you got photographs of holidays, old school reports, a memento brought home from a holiday.

Make time to get the box out from time to time, look at the objects and remember the stories behind the items. Listening to some music from that time can help recall events and add to the pleasure of recalling the memories.

These are just some activities that might be helpful and enjoyable if you, or a loved one has dementia. Many more ideas can be found if you search the internet. I found the following websites had lots of ideas:

Finally, if you want more information or would like an assessment, please contact me for more information on our speech language therapy services.