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Communicating and Dementia

Daughter comforting a mother gazing into the distance


Caring for someone with memory loss can be extremely frustrating. People with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia often experience delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are false beliefs, such as thinking a relative is stealing from them. Hallucinations are false perceptions, such as hearing or seeing something that isn’t there.

The natural instinct is to reassure the person that these thoughts or perceptions aren’t real. But correcting or reasoning rarely work and usually just cause frustration for both people. Instead,

  • Listen to what the person is saying
  • Acknowledge his or her feelings
  • Reassure him or her
  • Redirect attention or distract when you can

For example, your father might think that strangers are watching him through his bedroom window. Instead of telling him that he is wrong, agree how scary that would be. Assure him that he’s safe with you, then suggest you go to the kitchen for a snack. Consider closing the curtains before he goes back into the bedroom. Similarly, if your wife is convinced you stole her wallet, offer to help her look for it. Other tips that can help:

  • Reduce distractions that might cause or add to confusion. Bright lighting can minimize shadows that might be misinterpreted, and keeping TVs or music at a low volume can reduce background noises that may add to confusion.
  • A gentle touch, such as a pat on the arm, can help bring someone back to the present time and place.
  • Take your loved one’s concerns seriously. Let him or her know you care. Your tone of voice and facial expressions matter.
  • Don’t be upset or angry if you’re accused. A smile and encouragement can go a long way in comforting a person with dementia.

Keep in mind that your loved one may experience delusions and hallucinations that provide comfort. If that’s the case, you may not need to address them. Also, remember that it is possible that your loved one might be a victim, so watch for signs of abuse and check out any suspicions or accusations that could be true.