7 Things NOT to Say to Someone with Dementia

Navigating the challenges of dementia requires caregivers and loved ones to understand the delicate art of effective communication. It’s more than just words — it’s about fostering understanding and empathy to maintain vital connections and support the well-being of dementia patients. However, even with the best intentions, certain phrases can inadvertently cause distress or frustration for individuals with dementia.

We will shed light on 7 common communication pitfalls and offer alternative approaches to ensure interactions are supportive, enriching, and compassionate. By recognizing these nuances, care partners and family members can create environments where people with dementia feel valued, respected, and understood in their journey. We will explore how small changes in communication can provide emotional support that will make a big difference in the lives of our loved ones navigating the complexities of dementia.

Let’s explore 7 things NOT to say to someone with dementia that are counterproductive and undermine the dignity of those living with this heart-breaking disease. 

an adult woman uses tips about 7 things not to say to someone with dementia with her elderly mom as they walk happily together in the park

Disclaimer: Sassy Sister Stuff is an independent, informational website that provides educational and inspirational resources on a variety of topics. The information presented should not be considered a personal or professional consultation in any manner. If you need help with a problem, you should consult your medical, legal, educational, or another professional who is qualified to provide you with services or advice specific to your personal needs.

Personal Note: I have spent years taking care of aging family members, learning to be knowledgeable and compassionate. Several of them have had some form of dementia that I learned about through collaborations with doctors and other professionals. The information I share in my CAREGIVING articles is based on what I have learned from these personal experiences about communication, memory loss, health care plans, loss of independence, safety issues, Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia, unique physical needs, and much more. I genuinely hope the content I offer can help others who are faced with the challenges of caring for elderly loved ones. Please check out my other articles for additional information if you are in this situation. xoxo:)

Key Takeaways

  • A dementia diagnosis is scary for everyone — the patient and the family — but there are several different ways the family can help with effective communication, including nonverbal and verbal communication.
  • Dementia is an over-arching term that describes many types of diseases characterized by cognitive decline and memory problems caused by disease in various parts of the brain. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia. 
  • There are at least 7 things NOT to say to someone with dementia, plus any similar or related comments.  

the backs of an adult child with her arm around her elderly mom walking in the park

What is Dementia?

Dementia is not a single disease but rather an umbrella term encompassing a spectrum of conditions characterized by cognitive decline. While Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps the most well-known form of dementia, several other types also exist, each with its own distinct characteristics and underlying causes. Understanding these different types of dementia symptoms is essential for recognizing the unique challenges faced by individuals living with dementia.

1. Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for the majority of dementia cases, affecting memory, thinking, and behavior. It is characterized by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, leading to the progressive death of brain cells.

2. Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia results from impaired blood flow to the brain, often due to stroke or small vessel disease. Symptoms may vary depending on the location and severity of the brain damage, but commonly include difficulties with planning, judgment, and problem-solving.

3. Lewy Body Dementia (LBD)

Lewy body dementia is characterized by the presence of abnormal protein deposits, known as Lewy bodies, in the brain. It shares symptoms with both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, including fluctuations in cognition, visual hallucinations, and motor impairments.

4. Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)

Frontotemporal dementia encompasses several related conditions characterized by the progressive degeneration of the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. This type of dementia often manifests in changes to personality, behavior, and language abilities.

5. Mixed Dementia

Mixed dementia occurs when an individual exhibits symptoms of more than one type of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Diagnosis may be challenging due to overlapping symptoms, but accurate identification is crucial for providing appropriate care and support.

While each type of dementia presents its own set of challenges, all share the common feature of progressive cognitive decline and communication challenges. In this article, we are going to focus on 7 things not to say to someone with dementia so you can help with clear and compassionate communication. Hopefully this will help caregivers, healthcare professionals, and society as a whole better support individuals with any kind of dementia.

a close up of an adult child holding the hands of an elderly parent

7 Things NOT to Say to Someone with Dementia

A diagnosis of dementia is heartbreaking and scary for the patient and family members. Symptoms of dementia can vary depending on the type of dementia.  But while the progression of the disease varies from patient-to-patient, they all tend to cause communication problems, cognitive problems, and memory impairment.   

Patients often have good days and bad days, but good communication is important every day. Simple things such as open-ended questions, friendly facial expressions, gentle body language, direct eye contact, and a warm smile can be very helpful while communicating with a person who has dementia. 

It’s important for you to find the right words and avoid saying the wrong thing whenever possible.  It’s a good idea to review these 7 things NOT to say to someone with dementia so you do your part to promote effective social interaction and reduce stress or anxiety.  It’s also a good idea to be aware of your nonverbal communication habits while dealing with dementia patients.

Remember, your loved one is probably very frustrated because they may have lost their long-term memories, their abilities to do basic daily living skills, or even their mood regulation so always do your best to show compassion and sensitivity. 

1. “You Should Remember…”

This seemingly innocuous phrase and similar ones can inadvertently compound feelings of frustration and inadequacy in individuals with dementia. By asking dementia patients to remember past events or people who are no longer living, it places undue pressure on them to recall information that may be beyond their cognitive abilities due to the progressive nature of their condition. Furthermore, it can exacerbate feelings of guilt or embarrassment and heighten stress and anxiety. 

Try this instead:

Instead of relying on direct prompts that sound demanding, consider employing more supportive and gentle approaches. For instance, provide context cues to help jog their memory without explicitly demanding that they remember. Start with, “I remember when….” to help jog a memory.

Engage in reminiscence activities that focus on shared experiences or familiar topics. This will foster connection and engagement without placing undue emphasis on memory performance. Additionally, offer reassurance and validation rather than correction when gaps in memory arise, affirming their worth and dignity regardless of their ability to recall specific details.

2. “I Just Told You That.”

Short-term memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, resulting from damage to the brain regions responsible for storing and retrieving recent information. Individuals with dementia may struggle to retain new information or may quickly forget details that were just shared with them. This difficulty with short-term memory can lead to frustration and confusion for both the individual and their caregivers, as it disrupts communication and daily functioning.

Try this instead:

Responding to instances of repeated questioning or forgetfulness with empathy and patience is essential for maintaining a supportive and understanding environment. Instead of expressing frustration or irritation, approach these situations with compassion and reassurance. Simply answer the question or give the direction over again, as needed.

Remind yourself that the individual is not intentionally forgetting and that their memory loss is a symptom of their condition. Offer gentle reminders or prompts as needed, avoid criticism or admonishment, and validate their feelings and experiences.  Acknowledging the challenges they face while affirming their worth and dignity will help minimize distress and enhance the quality of communication with individuals living with dementia.

a distraught elderly person with dementia covers her face with her hands

3. “Do You Remember Me?”

This question or similar ones can be distressing for individuals with dementia because it emphasizes their memory deficits, causing feelings of embarrassment or frustration when they struggle to recall the person or the context. It may also contribute to a sense of loss or disconnection as they grapple with the inability to recognize familiar faces or relationships.

Try this instead:

Instead of directly asking if they remember, focus on building a connection through shared experiences or emotions. Approach them with warmth and familiarity, using cues such as their name or a gentle touch to establish rapport. Engage in meaningful activities or conversations that foster a sense of connection. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if they remember you as long as you can make them feel supported and loved. 

4. “You’re Wrong.”

Correcting or contradicting someone with dementia can have a detrimental impact on their self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It may lead to feelings of frustration, confusion, or even agitation as they struggle to reconcile conflicting information. You may also see unusual aggressive behavior. Additionally, constant correction can erode trust and strain relationships, undermining the foundation of communication and connection.

Try this instead:

Instead of focusing on correcting errors, employ techniques that redirect the conversation while preserving the individual’s dignity and autonomy. Validate their perspective and emotions, even if they diverge from reality, to maintain a supportive and empathetic stance. Gently steer the conversation towards a different topic or activity. Employ active listening and empathy to understand their underlying needs or concerns. By reframing interactions in a positive and respectful manner, you can minimize distress. 

5. “You’re Not Trying Hard Enough.”

Misconceptions about effort and ability in dementia can lead to harmful assumptions and attitudes towards individuals living with the condition. The most important thing is to recognize that cognitive decline in dementia is not a result of lack of effort or motivation but rather a consequence of neurological changes in the brain. Expecting a person living with dementia to “try harder” overlooks the complex nature of their condition and undermines their dignity and worth.

Try this instead:

Instead of using language that implies blame or inadequacy, it’s crucial to adopt supportive and empowering language that promotes capabilities and strengths. Focus on encouraging efforts and accomplishments, no matter how small, to foster a sense of self-worth. Use positive reinforcement and praise to motivate and uplift, creating an environment where individuals feel valued and supported in their journey with dementia.

a friendly female caregiver plays a table game with an elderly woman with dementia

6. “You’re Being Difficult.”

Behavior changes in dementia patients are often misunderstood and attributed to intentional defiance or stubbornness. However, these changes are typically a result of the underlying neurological changes in the brain, including damage to areas responsible for regulating emotions, behavior, and impulse control.

It’s essential to recognize that behaviors exhibited by individuals with dementia are often a form of communication, expressing unmet needs, discomfort, or distress. It’s never helpful to express that the patient is being difficult.

Try this instead:

De-escalating escalated situations with empathy involves first understanding the underlying triggers or causes of the behavior. Approach the individual with compassion and patience, acknowledging their feelings. Use gentle and reassuring language to diffuse tension and create a sense of safety. Employ distraction techniques or offer comforting activities to redirect their focus and alleviate distress. Walk away and give the patient quiet time, if necessary and appropriate.  

When you start to feel these negative emotions, it’s essential to prioritize your self-care and seek support from trusted loved ones, a health professional, or dementia care specialist.  You may also want to locate support groups in your area. Especially in the later stages of the disease, the caregiver can experience significant fatigue, frustration, and even flare-ups of health conditions. 

Related Article: 79 Uplifting Quotes About Caring for Elderly Parents

7. “Let Me Do That for You.”

Maintaining independence and dignity is crucial for people living with dementia, as it preserves their sense of identity and autonomy. Constant offers to assist with tasks can inadvertently undermine their self-confidence and lead to feelings of helplessness or dependence. It’s essential to recognize that individuals with dementia may still have the ability and desire to perform certain tasks, even if they require some support or guidance.

Try this instead:

When offering assistance, it’s important to do so in a respectful and empowering manner that preserves the individual’s sense of agency. Instead of assuming they need help, ask if they would like assistance or support with a particular task. One effective way to help is to suggest that you do it together. Respect their preferences and capabilities, allowing them to participate to the best of their ability. 

Offer guidance and encouragement rather than taking over, empowering them to maintain a sense of control and accomplishment. Additionally, provide adaptive tools or modifications to make tasks more manageable while still promoting independence. By prioritizing respect and empowerment in your interactions, you can help individuals with dementia maintain their dignity and sense of self-worth.

an elderly couple playing a table game together

Final Thoughts: 7 Things NOT to Say to Someone with Dementia

In navigating the challenges of dementia, language skills and cognition can falter, complicating daily life. Individuals may encounter a difficult time recalling memories, expressing themselves, or performing daily tasks. However, by understanding the impact on various areas of the brain, we can respond with compassion and provide care in simple words and gestures. 

Through various ways like validation, redirection, and empowerment, we uphold their dignity and promote well-being. Ultimately, compassionate care ensures individuals with dementia feel valued and supported on their unique journey.

However, based on personal experience, do not beat yourself up if you make mistakes while talking to someone with dementia or cause the person to get upset. Most of us are doing our best and learning as we go because every dementia patient has different symptoms and complications of the disease.

These are some additional resources if you are caring for someone with dementia. I have obtained valuable information from them.

You may also find these Related Articles about elderly care helpful:

Love to ALL! ~ Susan

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