What is dementia?

Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by disease or injury.  This causes the structure of the brain to change, leading to the loss of some brain cells. 

It's a progressive disease, meaning that over time more parts of the brain become damaged and symptoms become more severe. Symptoms of dementia include:

  • memory loss
  • confusion
  • problems with speech and understanding (aphasia). 

Dementia and communication problems

The extent of the communication problems experienced by people with dementia depends on the severity of the illness. Someone in the early stages of dementia may have milder communication problems than a person with advanced dementia.

Communication problems caused by dementia include:

  • saying a great deal but not conveying any meaning
  • difficulty concentrating on tasks or conversation topics
  • difficulty remembering old or new information
  • problems understanding words
  • problems expressing thoughts and feelings.

As dementia progresses, communication becomes less verbal. People rely on body language and tone of voice to understand what others are saying and to express their own feelings, needs and wants.

How can I improve communication with someone who has dementia?

People with dementia can find it difficult to concentrate on conversations or certain tasks, such as making a cup of tea. They can become easily distracted or forget what they’re doing.

People with dementia may also have difficulty finding the right words, especially the names of objects. They may use the wrong word or they might not be able to find any word at all.

Tips for communicating with someone with dementia

  • Make sure you have the full attention of the person before you speak to them.
  • Make sure they can see you clearly.
  • Make eye contact with them.  This will help them to focus on you.
  • Minimise background noise and other distractions, such as the radio, TV or other people’s conversations.
  • Give the person plenty of time to talk.  Don't press them to remember the right word unless you need it to understand what they are saying.
  • If the person has difficulty finding the right word or finishing a sentence, ask them to explain it in a different way.
  • If they are struggling to speak, suggest other ways of expressing themselves, such as drawing, gesturing or pointing.
  • Avoid asking open-ended questions.

Short-term memory problems

People with dementia have short-term memory problems and may find it difficult to remember new information or events. For example, they may forget what they had for breakfast or the date of a doctor’s appointment.

Long term memory is largely unaffected and therefore people with dementia tend to remember things that happened much earlier in their lives.

How to help someone with short-term memory problems

  • Create a memory album. As new life events occur, add them to the album. 
  • Make use of memory aids, such as post-it notes, white boards and calendars.
  • Try not to ask questions that rely on new memories.
  • Remind them where they are and what time it is. An orientation board might be useful, listing the date, time and weather.
  • Remind them tactfully what they were talking about during the conversation.
  • Make familiar music and pictures available.

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