What Not To Say To Somebody With Dementia


Words can be helpful and uplifting, but also hurtful and frustrating depending on the situation. Here, we look at some words and questions to try to avoid when talking to a person with dementia.

For a person living with dementia, language and communication can become more difficult over time. The type of difficulties a person will face as dementia progresses will be different for each individual.

The type and stage of the person's dementia will also be a factor. While the person living with the condition may have difficulties with finding the right word, the words that other people use are important too.

Good communication can be key to helping the quality of life for the person with dementia. Here are a few of the words and questions it may be best to avoid in conversation.

7 things to avoid saying to somebody with dementia

1. 'Remember when...?'

While it can be tempting to try and jog the memory of somebody living with dementia, this kind of question may highlight the fact that the person has memory problems.  It can also sometimes feel like the person is being tested.

This can be a frustrating or painful experience, and there’s also no evidence that prompting the person in this way will help them to recall or hold on to memories. It can be pleasant and comforting to talk about the past, however, it’s usually more helpful to lead the conversation and allow the person to join in. 

Try this instead:

  • Instead of posing a question, try leading with ‘I remember when…’. That way, the person can search their memory calmly without feeling embarrassed, then join in if they like.

2. 'I've just told you that'

It can be difficult answering the same question several times, especially when you are trying to keep frustration or upset from your voice.

However, reminding the person that you have just answered their question will not help them retain the information for next time, it is likely to just remind them of their condition. This can be distressing for you both. Bear in mind, that for them, it is likely to feel like the first time they have asked the question.

Try this instead:

  • Try to remember that the person cannot help repeating themselves. It is important for them to feel heard and understood.
  • Answer repeated questions calmly and patiently, with an even tone of voice. If you feel the need, take a break, and remove yourself from the conversation for a while.

3. 'Your brother died 10 years ago'

A person living with dementia may forget about a past bereavement or ask for somebody who has died. Reminding them of a loved one's death can be very painful, and they may react as though hearing the news for the first time all over again.

How to respond to these types of difficult questions will vary for different people in different circumstances, however, it's always important to show sensitivity and minimise any distress.

Try this instead:

  • For some people, encouraging them to talk about the person they are asking about can be comforting.  Distraction techniques can be useful, although try not to avoid the question if they keep asking, as this can cause the person to feel more anxious.
  • Find out how the person is feeling, sometimes asking about a particular family member or friend is due to the person having an unmet need, such as wanting comfort or reassurance.

4. 'What did you do this morning?'

Avoid asking too many open-ended questions about the past, as it could be stressful for a person with dementia if they can’t remember the answer. While it might seem polite to ask somebody about their day, it’s better to focus on what’s happening in the present.

Try this instead:

  • Instead of asking them about their day, speak briefly about your day and give them time to ask you questions about it.
  • They might then offer information about what they have done. Talk to them about the present and use items in the environment such as photos or ornaments to stimulate conversation.

5. 'Do you recognise me?'

It can be distressing when somebody with dementia doesn’t recognise you, especially if you have a close relationship with them. Remember that it is likely to be upsetting for them to not recognise people around them too.

Asking the person if they know who you are can make them feel guilty or anxious if they don't remember or offended if they do. 

Try this instead:

  • The way you greet somebody with dementia might change depending on the stage of their condition – judge for yourself but keep it friendly. A warm hello could suffice, or it may help to say your name and your relationship to them each time.

6. 'Let’s have a cup of tea now, then after that we can go for nice walk and get lunch and something else to drink in that café you like next to the big church in town.’

Long, complex sentences can be difficult to grasp for somebody with dementia. It's difficult to process several ideas at once as cognitive abilities slow down, so it's better to give directions or instructions one step at a time.

Try this instead:

  • Use short, simple sentences as much as possible. Avoid speaking too much in loud or busy environments, and wait until you have the person’s full attention before you start. During a conversation, give the person enough time to process what you are saying.

7. 'I'll just help you use your little spoon there, love?'

‘Elderspeak’ - which can involve talking in a high-pitched voice, using words like ‘love’ or ‘deary’, and generally speaking to the person like they are a child - should be avoided.  This can be patronising and infantilising for a person with dementia. 

Try this instead:

  • Always remember the person behind the dementia.  It’s fine if the person needs you to speak slower than usual, but try to keep your tone of voice the same as with anyone else.  
  • Some people may like being called ‘love’ or ‘dear’, but unless you know the person it is usually best to use their name instead. This helps keep their dignity intact.