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Communication and Language

Things to Look Out For and Ways You Can Help

The way we communicate is what gives us a sense of self

Humankind is inherently social, we rely on communication to connect us to our friends and loved ones, as well as to society as a whole. Many people living with dementia will start to find communication and language more challenging as their dementia progresses. The speed with which this develops and the level of difficulty they have, will depend on the type of dementia, the stage, and their unique dementia journey. Understanding how to overcome and work with these new communication challenges can fundamentally improve the quality of life for people living with dementia, and support them in continuing to live well.

Why is communication so important?

The way we communicate is what gives us a sense of self. Communication allows us to nurture our relationships and helps us to express our emotional and physical needs. How we choose to communicate really underpins who we are as a person; whether we convey this by dressing a certain way, expressing an opinion, or clapping to show our appreciation of something.

As children grow into adults, they adopt new ways of communicating and will start to rely more on language to make themselves understood. Society is structured around using words to convey sentiment, thoughts, feelings and needs. When someone is living with dementia, this traditional method of communicating- using words, can become more difficult. This can feel frustrating, frightening and isolating for the person living with dementia and their loved ones too.

What are the signs that my loved one might be struggling with language?

Several parts of the brain are responsible for language and communication. Therefore, the difficulties with language, that someone living with dementia might experience, can vary. Consider too, that external elements can also affect language and the ability to communicate traditionally. Like many of us, feeling tired, hungry, in pain, or just generally out of sorts, can all influence a person’s ability to communicate effectively. Observing repeated instances, such as those listed below, might indicate that your loved one needs some support from you to adapt the methods you normally use to communicate with one another.

  • They might be struggling to find the right words in conversation.

  • They may use a related word (for example, ‘steps’ instead of ‘stairs’).

  • They may describe a word instead of using the word itself (for example, ‘wrist clock’ instead of ‘watch’).

  • They may not be able to find the word at all.

  • They might use several nonsensical words, or sentences and might use words in the wrong order.

  • They may revert to speaking their first language (the first language they learned as a child).

How can I help?

Dementia can affect our power to communicate in a lot of different ways. As well as changes in our ability to use language traditionally, it can:

  • make you think more slowly than before, and processing information can take longer

  • following a conversation can become more difficult

  • focussing for long periods of time can be harder.

These difficulties can be compounded further by other conditions, such as hearing and sight loss, which often accompany older age and can compound the difficulties.

Whilst these feel like big obstacles to overcome, there are many ways in which a person living with dementia, and their loved ones, can adapt the ways they communicate to allow all parties to feel supported, understood and above all, heard.

Setting up your communication space

Our environments impact our senses hugely and it is these senses that we rely on when we move communication from verbal to more non-verbal footing. Noise, light, darkness, feeling uncomfortable and hunger can all distract us and make communication more difficult. Setting up your communication space is important:

  • reduce distractions (for example noise, visual distractions)

  • create a calm space to communicate in

  • try to sit at eye level and with an appropriate space between you

  • avoid feeling rushed and have a plan for what you’d like to talk about.

The art of conversation- both verbal and non-verbal

Society today is fast moving, loud and can feel intimidating to someone living with dementia. By slowing ourselves down, both literally and metaphorically, we can make communication a little easier.

  • making your sentences shorter, your voice calmer and waiting patiently for responses will all help too.

  • practice patience- being unable to find the words can feel very frustrating, so allow your loved one space and time to try.

  • having visual prompts on hand can help to find the words if they’re struggling.

By relying on our emotional intelligence and opening ourselves up to respond to non-verbal cues, clearer communication is often easier. You could try:

  • using gestures or facial expressions to convey what you mean (you should also be open to observing the same)

  • working with art and music to allow your loved one to express themselves in this way, if language feels too challenging

  • working with yes or no questions if they’re struggling to form longer sentences.

Sometimes, companionship can be offered simply by sitting quietly together and listening to a piece of music. A smile, a hand hold, a hug (if it feels appropriate) are all ways you can communicate together, once using verbal language becomes harder.

Accepting these changes can be challenging, especially for the person at the centre of it all- suddenly unable to make themselves understood in the ways they’re used to. Finding new methods of communication is key to feeling connected to the world and to one another, both vital components of continuing to live well with dementia.

Final Thought

Our Wayfinding Team are always here to help but adjusting and educating ourselves is for some the first step on the journey. Offering free advice and guidance for your whole dementia journey, even from before you have a formal diagnosis. The Wayfinders can also sign post to other services we work with to provide holistic, person-centred support.

If you have concerns about your loved one's memory, you can contact our Wayfinders on 01243 888691. They can support you and your loved ones for your whole journey with dementia, from pre-diagnosis to end of life care.


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