I See You, But Do You See Me? The Language of Dementia


Many years ago, I visited Suriname, it’s a Dutch speaking country in South America. Until that visit overseas, I had only the occasional, brief communication with non-English-speakers – a smile, a pointing finger, the awkward attempts to convey directions to someone with whom I did not share a common language. It’s different, humbling, when you are the foreigner. When you don’t speak the same language as the majority of the people you encounter, it causes a feeling of discomfort and for me, heightened vulnerability.

I felt fearful sometimes, not because the Dutch people did anything threatening, but because I felt alone. Conversations flowed around me, but I could not understand, nor was I understood – my only solace was the smiles and nods of the strangers around me. This is the reality for most affected by dementia.

When communicating, our deliberate focus must be on our body-language – our facial expressions, eye movement, gestures and posture is critical to good communication.

Some Do’s and Don’ts when communicating:

  1. Speak slowly and in short phrases.
  2. Speak in the affirmative. Ask for what you want, not what you don’t want.
  3. Use words that comfort and calms. Ex. “I’m sorry Bobby’s death makes you sad.” Rather than, “Mom, I’m not dead, you’re talking to me, Bobby!”
  4. Keep eye contact and approach from the front.
  5. Greet the person in the name they like to use.
  6. Use gestures.
  7. Break down directions into small steps.


  1. Don’t reason or explain. The person’s perception is their reality.
  2. Don’t ignore, or deny, their fears, anger or sorrows.
  3. Don’t take what they say personally.
  4. Don’t point out, or correct their misstatements.
  5. Don’t use the word, “NO.”

Communicate from a place of compassion. Do not assume that the person remembers, or is deliberately malicious. This helps when the conversation is accusatory in nature. I was talking with a friend who works in a Nursing Home, she felt nervous about caring for a particular resident, because she had referred to her as a “killer.” My friend was afraid that visitors would form a negative opinion of her, as the resident sometimes have clear conversations.

Join the person with dementia, in their reality. This means that you don’t try to bring them to the here-and-now, just enter their world and focus on the feelings they are experiencing rather than the words they use. It helps us to react with compassion, which will result in us connecting with the person – it is only when we connect, that we get permission to redirect them.

Please visit www.alz.org to learn more about communicating with persons with dementia. All the tips in today’s post came from the Alzheimer’s Association.

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