Creating Meaningful Communication with Someone Living with Dementia

daughter sitting with elderly mother with dementia looking at photo album


Anyone who knows or cares for someone living with dementia understands that conversations can be challenging. Meaningful communication is often the first casualty of dementia. People living with Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia may be living in a completely different time or place than those around them. Or they may forget what they’ve said just minutes before.

One of the techniques to reach those living with dementia is called validation. Developed by Naomi Feil, validation is a way to enter the world of the person you’re communicating with. We all like being validated. Having someone tell us that what we’re feeling or thinking has merit or that something we’ve accomplished is worthwhile makes us feel good. This is particularly true for someone living with dementia. These individuals often feel left out or different, so anything that validates their contributions and emotions makes them feel more connected. For instance, if a loved one says, “Eisenhower is doing a great job as president,” rather than correcting them and bringing them into your world, you could simply respond, “Yes, he’s done some really good things.” This validates their current reality and provides a foundation for you to have a conversation.

Trying to bring someone into the “real world” when they aren’t living there can be highly frustrating and upsetting. This is why you should never “correct” them by forcing them back in “reality.” Below are two examples of a possible conversation between a mother and her son. The first example uses correction, the second uses validation – validating the person’s experience.

Correction Technique

Mother:  Have you bought your Thanksgiving turkey yet? Only a week to go!
Son:  Mom, Thanksgiving isn’t for another six months.
Mother:  What? No, no, it’s just a week away. I’m looking forward to it!
Son:  Well, you’ll have to wait little longer. It’s still a ways off.
Mother:  What are you talking about? Thanksgiving is almost here!
Son:  Mom, come and have a piece of this chocolate cake Mary and I brought for you. It’s delicious!
Mother:  I want some turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce!
Son: Mom, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in six months. Now’s the time for chocolate cake!
Mother:  Why are you trying to ruin my Thanksgiving?

Validation Technique

Mother:  Have you bought your Thanksgiving turkey yet? Only a week to go!
Son:  That’s right, you like Thanksgiving, don’t you?
Mother:  Oh yes, it’s my very favorite holiday.
Son:  What’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory?  
Mother:  Oh, remember that time when you performed in the school play? You were a pilgrim!
Son:  I sure do. Yes, that was a good Thanksgiving.
Mother:  Oh, yes, that was a lot of fun!
Son:  Let’s sit down and make a list of all the things we want for our Thanksgiving dinner this year.
Mother:  Okay!

By validating their experience, you put them at ease, making it easier to redirect them into a new activity or thought process. Here are some other tips that can help you connect and communicate with someone you love.

Make sure they’ll fully engaged

Make sure you’re got their attention before you begin a conversation. Make sure distractions are at a minimum. Turn off the TV, radio or music player. Look them in the eye and tell them who you are.

Share memories about past events

For most people living with dementia, long-term memories remain intact longer than short-term ones. Ask them to share with you a particular enjoyable event from their past. Take an old family photo album with you and ask them to share the stories behind the photos.

Share an activity

Take your loved one for a stroll in a nearby park or to a museum or concert. People with memory loss are still able to enjoy the arts and, in many cases, it can help them recall memories and feel more engaged in life. If an outing isn’t possible, work together on a jigsaw puzzle or arranging flowers.

Demonstrate empathy

If they are upset about something, validate their feelings by telling them you understand and would feel the same way if such a thing were happening to you. Then offer to help them solve the issue. If a loved one feels like someone is in their corner and looking out for them, this may allow them to trust you more.

Keep an open heart

Always remember that your loved one is dealing with one of the greatest challenges any of us could face. Your willingness to connect with them helps them have a life that is still joyful and full of purpose.