How to Connect with Someone Living with Dementia

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. Additionally, they may not remember what was said just minutes before. This can make meaningful connection challenging. But for those with the patience and compassion to make it happen, it’s still possible to make it happen.

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, “Betty’s getting married tomorrow” about someone who’s been divorced for 10 years, rather than correcting them and bringing them into your world, you could simply respond, “Yes, she’s excited. Tell me a little bit about your wedding day.” 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 father and his son. The first example uses correction, the second uses validation – validating the person’s experience.

Correction Technique
Father:  I’ve got get to work. Where are my car keys?
Son:  Dad, you don’t have a job. You retired 20 years ago!
Father:  What? Stop talking nonsense! Of course I have a job. I’m late! Where are my car keys?
Son:  Dad, you haven’t driven for five years. Come over here and relax.
Father:  What are you talking about? I drove to work yesterday!
Son:  Dad, come over here and have a peach. They’re delicious!
Father:  Why are you torturing me? I need to get to work!
Son: Dad, settle down. Everything’s going to be okay.
Father:  Everything will be okay once I get to work! Are you going to help my find my car keys?

Validation Technique
Father:  I’ve got get to work. Where are my car keys?
Son:  What do you have planned for today at work?
Father:  Well, I got reports to get done and there’s a staff meeting at 10:00!
Son:  Oh, will Jim be there?
Father:  Of course he’ll be there.
Son:  Good. You two have a good time together. Remember when we all went camping over Labor Day weekend at Cedar Lake?
Father:  Oh, yes, that was a lot of fun!
Son:  Why don’t take a drive over there now and grab lunch at that new diner.
Father:  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 communication with someone you love.

Make sure they’ll fully engaged
Find a quiet spot to have your conversation. If there’s a TV or radio on, turn it off. Make eye contact and identify yourself.

Share memories about past events
Because long-term memories may remain intact, reminiscing about the past is a good way to have a conversation that is enjoyable for the both of you.

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.