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What Not to Say to Someone With Memory Loss

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Communicating with a loved one with memory loss can be rewarding, though it can often pose unique challenges. Your loved one deserves support, validation, and a social network like everybody else, but their condition may make it more difficult. It’s essential to learn what to say—and what not to say—to someone with memory loss so you can make the most of your interactions.

When speaking to someone with memory loss, avoid asking questions like “Do you remember this?” or “Remember when we…?” Don’t use complex sentences, and never use demeaning language. Remember that it will take them time to respond, so be patient; this way, you can enjoy a rewarding and fulfilling conversation while validating your loved one.

Things to Avoid Saying to a Person with Memory Loss

Your communication strategy is everything when speaking to a loved one with memory loss. It’s important to remember that your loved one is living with a serious neurodegenerative disorder that is likely affecting all parts of their life.

Things that may seem simple to you could be life-altering for them, and communication could be significantly harder than it appears. It’s essential to know what to avoid when speaking with your loved one to avoid making communication any more difficult.

By knowing what to say and what not to say, you can engage your loved one in a rewarding, supportive, and loving manner. 

Try to avoid:

  • Asking if they remember
  • Using complex sentences
  • Demeaning language and elderspeak
  • Demanding a response

Asking if They Remember

One of the most instinctive responses when faced with someone dealing with memory issues is to ask, “Do you remember…?” While often intended in an attempt to trigger a recollection of an old memory, this often backfires.

Instead of inspiring them to recall some long-forgotten tale, it’ll more likely lead to discomfort and pressure to perform. Instead, talk about what you remember from something and see if they chime in with their own recollection. This way, the reminiscing is a shared experience—not a demand that they remember things immediately on someone else’s terms.

Using Complex Sentences

Complex sentences, statements, and plans can confuse anybody, but memory loss makes them much more difficult to follow. Don’t try to lay out some complicated plan for the day, like “We’ll get coffee, then have breakfast, then we can come back here and clean, and then go to…”

This can be too complicated to follow since cognitive abilities and memory loss can make it difficult to process your sentence fully. Instead, say something like, “Let’s make coffee and chat for a bit.” Rather than expecting them to recall a long piece of information, break it down into a single step at a time—and give them time to process what you’re saying. This can make the conversation much less confusing.

Demeaning Language & Elderspeak

There’s a bad habit many people slip into when speaking to an older adult with dementia called “elderspeak.” This is when you use:

  • Overly-simplified language
  • Too loud of a voice
  • A sing-song way of speaking

This type of language can be incredibly demeaning to someone with memory loss. Rather than using condescending language, treat your loved one like the adult they are. Instead of trying to make everything extremely simple, just take it slowly. 

Speak with your usual voice, and give them time to process your words. This way, your loved one can take things at their own pace without feeling like they’re losing their dignity.

Demanding a Response

When they can’t get a straight answer, some people begin demanding responses, as though some answer is better than nothing. However, this is a poor choice when communicating with a loved one living with memory loss.

A person’s inability to remember something often leads to agitation or withdrawal. Instead of demanding your loved one respond, stay patient and calm. Give them time to process and respond at their own pace if you’re saying something significant.

How to Speak to Someone with Memory Loss

Now that you know what not to do when speaking to a loved one with memory loss, you may wonder: “How do I communicate, then?”

It can help to:

  • Communicate openly
  • Use simple language
  • Be supportive and judgment-free

Communicate Openly

Open, honest communication builds trust and a sense of safety for your loved one while they’re trying to communicate. Try to share about your day, listen to what they say about their own, and maintain eye contact.

Try to practice active listening and truly focus on what they’re saying. This can give you insights into their lives, thoughts, and feelings, making it much easier to validate and support them.

This is especially important when discussing important decisions or potentially distressing topics. Transparency can relieve anxiety and make your loved one feel much more relaxed, knowing that you’re paying full attention and supporting them.

Use Simple Language

Adopting a simpler, more direct style of speech can make a world of difference in comprehension. Clear and straightforward language and visual aids, if appropriate, can enhance understanding and flow of conversation.

Try to stay away from:

  • Slang
  • Sarcasm
  • Euphemisms
  • Traditional sayings
  • Idioms

This way, you can make it much simpler for your loved one to follow the conversation.

Be Supportive & Judgment-Free

Supporting someone with memory loss means providing an environment where they can express themselves freely without fear of judgment. It can help to:

  • Offer encouragement when they’re frustrated
  • Express any ideas with positivity and kindness
  • Validate their feelings

Remember: it isn’t about controlling the discussion. Instead, it’s about spending time with your loved one and communicating in a way that accommodates them.

An older adult man sitting with a cane conversing with a nurse holding a book.

How to Help a Loved One with Memory Loss

Communicating with a loved one with memory loss can take some time to do efficiently, but it is a rewarding experience. It’s a space where you can be vulnerable, show your love, and validate the other with love and care. And our team here at The Village at Bellevue understands how important it is to feel heard.

That’s why our memory care team works so hard to support older adults with memory loss. We believe that every person should feel valued, supported, and loved. Schedule a visit with our team today, and let’s work together to make your loved one feel heard.

Written by Angela Clark

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