Nearly all of us who have loved ones living with dementia will have experienced that heart-stopping moment when they first say something confusing, or disjointed, or just plain odd. Sometimes it can be hard to know whether you really heard it correctly; perhaps you might decide to gloss over it and carry on as though nothing has happened. But knowing how to reply and talk kindly to those with dementia is key in helping them to feel comfortable and less frustrated in everyday situations – and will help you to feel the same.

A lot will depend on the stage of dementia, but keeping mindful of these Five Key Guidelines will help:

  • Always try to make sure you’re in the person’s eyeline when you speak, though don’t crowd them. Give them space and dignity, just like you would anyone else.
  • Speak in short, clear statements rather than open-ended sentences, which can be confusing, and avoid offering too much choice. So for example, ‘Would you like tomato soup or chicken soup?’ rather than, ‘What do you fancy for lunch?’
  • Give objects their names rather than using ‘it’ or ‘they’, which will help to make the person with dementia feel grounded and remind them of key words and concepts. ‘How is your chicken soup?’ Not ‘Does that taste good?’. And in the same vein, use their name (and your name) often.
  • Whenever you can, take gentle control of the situation so that they do not have to make unnecessary decisions. In other words, use statements, not questions. If it’s time to go out, say, ‘Let’s go out now’ rather than ‘Shall we go out now?’
  • Unless they are enjoying a reminiscence, steer clear of memory lane. Instead, focus on your loved one’s current surroundings. Sometimes, if the time feels right, you can combine both – for example, with a photo album of old times

All of these things take a little practice, but they can make a huge impact on the welfare of those living with dementia, who may be frustrated or upset by their inability to recall everyday words or ideas. And on that note… it can be really hard to let go of the urge to correct a person who is making mistakes, but if you can allow errors to slip past, and focus on what’s going on now around them, it makes a smoother ride for everyone.

If all else fails, try to keep it light. Laughing with the person about simple confusions can be a tension reliever (as long as the situation is appropriate, of course), and smiles, warmth in the tone of your voice and gentle touches to the arm or knee will set them at ease and create a positive mood.