How to Talk to Someone with Dementia on the Phone

how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone

It is common for loved ones to ask how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone.

Phone conversations are important when relatives or friends want to keep in touch and cannot always enjoy face-to-face conversations because of distance and other factors.

Keep in mind that when calling a person with dementia, they may have some communication problems brought about by the illness depending on the level of progression.

This said it is possible to have fulfilling and fun conversations over the phone.

Practical Tips: Dementia and the Telephone

practical tips on how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone

Below are some practical steps to follow when calling a person who has dementia.

Do Not Be in a Hurry

When scheduling a phone call with a person who has dementia, be prepared to take some time. Do not be in a rush to speak quickly and get the conversation over and done with.

Free up some time and make sure to speak slowly and clearly. Pay close attention to the responses the person makes.

It is also best to talk about one point before moving to the next to avoid overwhelming the person.

It is also important to avoid jargon and use language that is familiar to the person on the other end of the phone line.

Where necessary, repeat or rephrase to make sure that the individual has enough time to process what they have been told. Additionally, use the name of the person when speaking to them or a title they prefer.

Listen Actively

listen actively when speaking with dementia patients

When talking to an individual who has the progressive illness, it is advisable to listen very carefully to them. It lets them know that an individual values them and has time for them.

At times, the conversations may be one-sided with a lot of pauses. This is the time to be a little creative and come up with ways to enhance the dialogue. It can be through fun things like singing or reminiscing on a memory that brings joy to the individual.

Have a list of topics to talk about during the duration of the call. Listen keenly to how the person responds to the topic of discussion and move on to a different one if they are not comfortable with what is currently on the table.

Most importantly, do not infantilize a person with dementia by talking to them as though they were young kids or senile. Always use a respectful tone of voice and treat them with honor.

Plan Ahead

plan ahead with calls to dementia patients

When learning techniques on how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone, it is important to be in tune with the person’s daily schedules. You do not want to call when they are having a meal, sleeping, irritable, or taking part in an activity.

If the person is in a facility, call ahead to know when it would be best to schedule the conversation. If the affected individual is still at home, you may have to visit or get into contact with another individual who lives with them to know the best times to make the call. Ideally, this needs to be a time when the person with dementia is most alert and well-rested.

At the end of the conversation, the person calling may agree to set a time and day for the next call. The individual with dementia can note it down on their calendar or have reminder alerts on their phone or other devices so that they can have something to look forward to.

Try Video Calling

try video calling when phoning a person with dementia

If the person with dementia is tech-savvy, it may be better to use video calls particularly if they are in the later stages of the illness.

It will not only help two or more people to see each other but gestures can also be added to the conversation.

A study conducted in 2015, explained that representational gestures such as pointing to an object can help compensate for speech deficits.

Some of the gestures that experts recommend include:
    • Giving thumbs-up
    • Waving
    • “Talking” with hands
    • Giving an “OK” sign
    • Pointing to objects a person is talking about
    • Facial expressiveness
    • Indicating size with the distance between hands or fingers
    • Using fingers to list (such as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd)

Gestures come in handy in many circumstances. For instance, rather than saying “Thank you very much, that means a lot to me” it might be better to say “Thank you”, offer a meaningful smile, and place a hand on the heart. If the affected individual is at a loss for words, remind them that they can point to an object and it can be seen through the screen.

Remember to position the device used for video calling at a table or desk considering factors such as lighting to ensure the person with the illness sees who they are talking to clearly.

It also helps to sit at eye level to the camera so that the affected individual does not struggle to stare up or down at the person they are conversing with to avoid making them feel intimidated. Remember to concentrate fully by looking into the camera lens at all times during the conversation. Looking elsewhere may give an impression that the person on the other end is not important.

It is also advisable to minimize distractions when on call giving the individual with dementia undivided attention they require.

Focus on Sensory Experiences

While it may be tempting to bring up the past when learning how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone, it is advisable to focus on the present.

As the neurodegenerative disease progresses, it may affect long-term memories like important past dates, events, and relationships. To have an enjoyable conversation, focus on the present.

Describing surroundings, for example, may work and the individual with dementia can also describe their current surroundings, weather, and other things they are comfortable talking about.

Enter their Reality

phoning dementia enter their reality

One of the things that stands out when discussing how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone is to enter your loved one’s reality. Get into their shoes and try and feel what they are going through. Rather than show disbelief when the person makes a mistake during a conversation, just mask or brush it off.

A person with the progressive illness may find themselves asking one question over and over. Do not get irritated by this, but calmly answer each time. The primary goal of conversing is to connect with the person with the illness and not to correct them or keep reminding them about who they are.

Closing Thoughts

While it may not be easy to converse with a person who has dementia, the above are some practical tips an individual may work with when learning how to talk to someone with dementia on the phone.

Remember that dementia affects everyone differently. A lot of experimentation and patience is needed to identify what works for both parties. Keep the conversations light and fun so that the persons always look forward to the calls.

Loved ones also need to be flexible because what works today may not necessarily work the next day. Learning more about the disease is also prudent when it comes to empowering, encouraging, celebrating, and offering better support to people living with dementia.

While there is no formula for holding successful conversations at all times adding genuine warmth and respect can increase the odds of success.

How to Talk to Someone with Dementia on the Phone- A Quick Guide

1. Do Not Be in a Hurry

Patience is key when talking to someone who has dementia over the phone. Do not schedule a one-minute call. Instead, create ample time to catch up and have a good time.

2. Listen Actively

The person calling an individual with the progressive illness should not just talk, talk, and talk. Keep ears wide open and listen to the other person as well. Where possible, let them lead the conversation.

3. Plan Ahead

No one wants to be called without an agenda even those with dementia. Plan the calls ahead of time and know what to say and not what to say. It is also crucial to get the timing right to avoid interfering with an individual’s daily routines.

4. Try Video Calling

Video calling is a great way to communicate with a person who has dementia. It allows a person to see the other individual’s reaction and also incorporate gestures to understand each other better.

5. Focus on Sensory Experiences

Do not force a person with the neurodegenerative disease to talk about the past especially if they are having trouble with their memory. Focus on the present and have conversations that the person can take part in. Do everything possible to bring joy to the individual during the conversations.

6. Enter their Reality

Understand that the neurodegenerative disease affects the way a person communicates. Try and understand how they feel and treat them with love, respect, and dignity.

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