Communicating With Compassion: What Not to Say to People With Dementia

A woman hugs her aging mother as she learns more about communicating with compassion with people who have dementia.

Empathy, understanding, and communicating with compassion are key when talking to individuals living with dementia.

Have you ever said the wrong thing? Perhaps your intention was to compliment a friend on her new haircut, but you came across sounding like you were criticizing her previous hairstyle. Choosing our words carefully and communicating with compassion is always important, but even more so when speaking to a person with dementia. The words we say as well as the way we say them can significantly impact the person’s emotional well-being and quality of life.

Here are five things never to say to someone with dementia, along with alternative approaches to foster connection and understanding:

  1. “You’re wrong.” Invalidating a person’s thoughts or memories may cause frustration and distress. Instead of dismissing their reality, validate their feelings and experiences. For example, say, “I understand that you see it that way,” or redirect the conversation to a different topic. By acknowledging their perspective, you validate their emotions and maintain a sense of connection.
  2. “You just told me that.” Continuously pointing out their forgetfulness can be hurtful and counterproductive. Instead, practice patience and respond as if it is the very first time you have heard the information. This tactic preserves their dignity and reduces feelings of frustration. You can say, “Thank you for sharing that with me,” and continue the conversation without dwelling on their forgetfulness.
  3. “You don’t have dementia.” Minimizing or denying their condition can lead to feelings of confusion and isolation. It’s crucial to acknowledge their reality while offering support and reassurance. Express empathy and assure them that you’re there to help navigate any challenges they may face. You could say, “I’m here to support you through this journey, regardless of what comes our way.”
  4. “Do you remember…?” Asking someone with dementia to remember specific details can lead to embarrassment or anxiety if they cannot remember. Instead, provide gentle prompts or share your own memories to spark conversation without putting pressure on them to remember. For instance, say, “I remember when we went to that play together. It was such a wonderful evening,” allowing them to participate in the conversation without feeling pressured to remember specific details.
  5. “You are being difficult.” Labeling their behavior as challenging or difficult can increase tension and hinder effective communication. Instead, approach them with understanding and kindness. Identify the underlying needs or emotions driving their behavior and respond with patience and empathy. For example, say, “I can see that you are feeling frustrated. Why don’t we take a moment to determine how we can make things better together.”

Communicating with compassion can become extremely challenging as dementia progresses. Let CareWorks Health Services’ highly trained, knowledgeable dementia care specialists help. Email or call us at (949) 859-4700 to learn more about our specialized care for individuals with dementia in Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Laguna Woods, and the surrounding areas. We understand the unique needs of people living with dementia and are dedicated to providing thoughtful care that promotes dignity and quality of life.