Eight Ways to Spark Up Communications with a Person Who has Dementia

Some days when I visited, I tried everything to get Mom’s attention and communicate with her. Of course, I tried talking.  When that didn’t interest her, I gazed into her eyes or waved my hands to pique her curiosity or touched her arm to let her know I was there. I know how challenging it can be to have meaningful communication when someone is deeply forgetful and I am most grateful for this excellent article by Karen Love. Karen is a founder of CCAL, a non-profit national consumer advocacy and education organization.

Here are excerpts from Karen’s article:

Did you know that spoken words only account for 7% of communication?  The remaining 93% of communication is conveyed through body language, vocal tone and pitch. Communication style becomes especially important when someone in your life is living with dementia.

Here are a few tips for better communications:

Stand at eye level in front of them so they benefit from seeing your body language and facial expressions. Slow your speech down because their brains process information more slowly.

Don’t interrupt: take time to listen to the person’s response. If they are especially stuck on a word, kindly supply the word and see how they react. If they don’t appear to want the help, let them manage on their own.

Ask one question at a time and ask questions that require simple yes or no answers.   For instance, “Do you want scrambled or fried eggs this morning?” instead of “How would you like your eggs this morning?”

Where possible, supplement your communication with visual cues. Smile often, not only because it conveys warmth and caring, but also because smiling can make you feel better too.

Touch is a powerful communicator.  When used positively, touch can convey caring and warm feelings.  It only takes a moment to offer a pat on the shoulder or a gentle hand squeeze.

Phone calls are especially challenging for someone who has dementia because the only communication cues they receive are words (7%) and vocal tone and pitch (38%).  Limit phone conversations to a minute or so and say something positive like, “I was thinking of you and just wanted to call and say hello.”   Consider using Skype or another one of the visual software methods on a computer, tablet or iPad to communicate.

Spend time together in companionable silence.  It can be exhausting for someone living with dementia to continually process communication.  Sit across from the person or at 90 degrees so they can easily see you.

Lastly, be aware of how you are communicating and whether it is having desirable results such as smiles, nodding, and looking contented, happy, or relaxed.   If not, review your style to see if you should adjust an aspect of your technique.


To learn more about Karen and her organization, please visit: http://www.ccal.org

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.


  1. Mike Good on July 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

    I recently started volunteering in a daycare and I try to engage with some of the residents that don’t talk back. I still struggle with this because it’s hard to have a one-way conversation and I get bored. If I knew more about them, I supposed I would have more to talk about. There’s one lady who can’t talk and I think when she tries, it comes out as mumbles. I engage with her and she usually doesn’t seem interested but when I walk by her later, I see her eyes follow me with a smile. That tells me that she heard me earlier, and that helps me to keep at it.

  2. My Alzheimer's Story (@MyAlzStory) on July 27, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing.

    So you know, this information about words, body, language and voice tone is actually not quite correct. The erroneous misinterpretation of research results has been widely disseminated and quoted. All things being equal, people pay attention to all three.

    Here’s a short piece of my own on Alzheimer’s language:


  3. […] Ways to spark up conversation […]

  4. Maggie on July 28, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Very true

  5. Patricia Crowell on July 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    very powerful…approach, compassion, and patience

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