Do’s & don’ts of talking with loved ones with dementia


BG Independent News


The room was crowded with people desperately seeking ways to connect with loved ones who have dementia.

The secret, the speaker said, is to stop expecting people with dementia to be who they used to be.

Belinda Cytlak, a memory care consultant with Waugh Consulting, recently presented a program at Wood Haven Health Care on how to communicate with people who have dementia. When Cytlak asked how many in the audience know someone with dementia, every person raised a hand.

“The family and friends have the toughest time,” she said.

Cytlak spoke from experience, with her mother having dementia.

“The hardest thing was to give up who my mom was,” she said. That doesn’t mean giving up on loved ones, but just changing expectations of them.

It can be difficult for family members or friends to realize that today’s lunch is no longer a safe topic of conversation.

“Anyone who has dementia has a problem with short-term memory,” Cytlak said.

So the typical questions about lunch or recent visitors can make a person with dementia feel frustrated or like a failure, she said.

“We put that person with dementia in a position where they know they don’t know – and they don’t want to fail,” Cytlak said.

Above all, she said, don’t dispute facts with a person with dementia.

“My mom used to say her big brother just came to visit. He’s been gone for eight years,” Cytlak said. But it was futile to say “No Mom, your brother wasn’t here.” Trying to use logic is not helpful. In fact, reasoning often causes a conversation to “spiral out of control.”

If a loved one with dementia gets agitated or angry over their lack of short-term memory, Cytlak suggested trying to redirect them.

Family and friends should come up with “conversation starters,” that can bring back pleasant memories. Cytlak recommended that loved ones try to “live in their world.” Her mom loved cooking, so talking about recipes was a topic enjoyable to both of them.

Pay attention to the person’s senses, she advised. What do they like to smell – molasses cookies, certain flowers? What was a favorite food – candy, pie, beer? Did they prefer Frank Sinatra or Glenn Miller? Don’t forget the sense of touch that can bring back memories – with pets, or fabrics such as lace. And old photos or adult coloring books can prompt good conversations.

“Give them a tool of how to get into their long-term memory,” Cytlak said.

And avoid questions all together if those cause stress. Instead of saying, “do you remember our first puppy?” try saying, “I was thinking about that dog we had….”

“So they don’t have to feel bad about not knowing an answer,” she said.

Let people with dementia be helpful – many still feel that need to be useful, she added.

“My mother absolutely loved to help anyway she could.” Let them set the table – it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Of course, there are limits. She talked of a former mechanic who always asked to leave the facility where he was living so he could work on this truck. Rather than just say “no,” Cytlak suggested telling him that a friend of his was fixing the brakes so he can bring the truck over, then redirecting the former mechanic to something else he might enjoy.

“Be where they’re at. Don’t argue with them,” she said.

But Cytlak cautioned that even after family and friends know how to avoid the pitfalls in conversing with loved ones with dementia, it’s still difficult at times.

“I’ll tell you, I still make mistakes,” she said.

But at least people are now talking about the topic – and working to improve the communication for those with dementia plus their family and friends.

“Ten years ago, when people had dementia, we didn’t talk about it,” Cytlak said.