Eight tips for talking to someone with dementia

How to connect meaningfully when the person you care about has dementia

When words fail

If someone you care about has dementia, you’ll know only too well how difficult it can be to engage in meaningful dialogue. As brain function deteriorates, the chit-chat about shared interests, family and friends that you both enjoyed in the past may no longer be possible. It may cause them confusion and anxiety when you refer to people, locations and events that they can no longer place, as their memories fragment and connections become unravelled. For you, such loss of conversation is painful; you might also feel frustrated or even annoyed.

If this sounds like you, don’t worry – it’s normal to feel this way. And don’t give up. If you’re concerned to know how to talk to someone with dementia, there are simple things you can do to make conversation more meaningful and enjoyable for both of you. With a little thought and preparation there are ways you can still communicate with care, respect, affection and love.

Group of people from Anna Chaplaincy network

BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy  – a network of individuals dedicated to supporting older people’s spiritual needs – has accumulated significant experience and skills in working pastorally and compassionately with the very old, including those with dementia. If you’d like to be able to communicate better with someone whose cognitive abilities are declining, read on for guidance from BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy team leader Debbie Thrower.


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Eight tips for talking to someone with dementia

These tips from BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy may help you prepare to talk to someone with dementia.

  1. Allow plenty of time and space for the visit. People with dementia are very sensitive to emotions and will pick up if you are rushed or harassed and feel discomforted.
  2. Give the other person your full attention. Try to be in as calm a frame of mind as possible when you visit or you will be unable to mask being distracted.
  3. Don’t expect too much – of yourself or the other person. Let the visit evolve naturally and calmly, and be prepared for serendipity! Magic moments of lucidity may or may not happen, but try to appreciate together the small things of life.
  4. Don’t feel you have to talk all the time. Sitting comfortably and peacefully in silence may elicit a beautiful smile, for instance, that we might miss if we were busy filling the ‘gaps’ too assiduously.
  5. Let go of feelings of resentment and frustration. People with dementia have a great deal to teach us about letting go of superfluous, unhelpful emotions and living in the moment.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use touch: a gentle holding of someone’s hand, for instance – having asked if you may – can be such a comfort to someone who misses such tender gestures.
  7. Don’t expect to bolster your own sense of self-worth. The visit is not about you making yourself feel better or assuaging any sense of guilt.
  8. Remember it’s not about your needs but the needs of the person with whom you have chosen to spend this time.


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Communicating without words

‘When "normal conversation" no longer seems to work,’ adds Debbie, ‘perhaps it helps to think of how lovers communicate. Much time is spent in silence, just looking at the beloved, observing. Words are superfluous or might even break the spell of a special time together.’

Debbie suggests we can enter into the same spirit of love and restraint in how we approach those living with dementia – those who are closest to us but can seem far away in their minds.


Helping hands
'If you’re struggling to communicate to a family member or friend with dementia, it may help to think of how lovers communicate.'

The late Malcolm Goldsmith put it beautifully in his seminal work on dementia:

When we visit we are bringing a fresh voice and face and, occasionally, we hope, a sense of the divine to someone who may be trapped… in their sense of isolation.

Sometimes it is really difficult to make much apparent headway... There may be many reasons… it may the effect of drugs [or] they have something else troubling them... When the going gets tough, stay in there; words are not essential. I have [often] felt… totally inadequate and unable to establish any contact. I have inwardly despaired and longed for the clock to tick on so that I could leave. Such feelings are common and understandable, and we need to “offer up” the situation. Remember… your best is always good enough for God, and if you are doing your best, with sensitivity and compassion, then you can do no more. But we do need to be doing our best; our second best is not enough.

M. Goldsmith, In a Strange Land… People with dementia and the local church (4M, 2004), pp. 156–7

'When the going gets tough, stay in there; words are not essential.'

For a deeper understanding

Thinking of You book cover

For more help with supporting those living with dementia, take a look at Thinking of You, a valuable guide from the priest and psychologist Joanna Collicut, who is also a lecturer in the psychology of religion and spirituality as well as Oxford diocesan advisor for the spiritual care of older people.

If you are a leader of a church, or a member of a congregation, that has a large number of people living with dementia; or if you wonder what the future may hold for you as the years creep on; or if dementia is part of your lived experience — my hope and prayer is that these pages will be of benefit both to you and to those around you.

Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester

Read a sample   Find out more or buy the book

Search for more Anna Chaplaincy approved dementia resources.

For more guidance on talking to someone with dementia, see these tips from the Alzheimers Society.

Commit to support those living with dementia

The Gift of Years Gathering delegates

Debbie and BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy network help individuals and churches to do their best to support those living with dementia (and their families and close friends), and train others to do the same. The Anna Chaplaincy model for pastoral care in later life that they have developed is followed by more than 80 individuals. Perhaps you, your church, or someone you know, would like to develop skills and confidence in ministering to people with dementia? Contact us to find out how we can help.


Contact BRF's Anna Chaplaincy


Image acknowledgements

Helping hands © Thinkstock