Dementia Behaviors as Communication: Deciphering Your Loved One’s New Language

Your sweet-tempered father starts swearing and lashing out. Your mom lives with you but keeps trying to go “home.” Neither one makes bath time easy.

Anger and frustration. Wandering. Refusal to cooperate. There are many reasons your loved one with dementia may behave the way they do. They may be confused, anxious or scared, hungry or bored, in pain or not sleeping well – and unable to tell you with their words.

Because much of the behavior demonstrated by people with dementia is an attempt to communicate, learning what these behaviors mean and how to communicate effective responses will make daily life less frustrating and more enjoyable for everyone.

“It may seem like learning a new language, and in a way, it is,” says Danielle Buck, Director of Community Relations at YourLife™ of Stuart, a Memory Care community in Stuart, Florida. “But when we understand the ‘whys’ behind the person’s actions, how we should respond becomes clearer.”

In this post, we’ll discuss how your loved one may be using behavior to communicate with you, how to understand their messages, and how to interact with your loved one to meet their physical and emotional needs.

Behavior as Communication

Your loved one’s ability to adequately verbalize their needs will diminish as dementia eradicates the portion of their brain responsible for language. Even before they lose the ability to speak, people with memory loss may repeat themselves without articulating what they actually need or want, describe objects or persons rather than calling them by name, lose their train of thought, use incorrect vocabulary, and begin to rely on body language and gestures more often.

As speech is lost, common behavioral substitutes include:

The first step is to identify what is triggering your loved one’s actions or refusals to cooperate. Pay close attention to their body language and consider any real – or perceived – threats to their safety or comfort. Remember, they are not trying to be difficult; there is a reason they are acting as they are. Like everyone, they have needs that must be met and, for you to gain their cooperation so you can help them, they must feel understood, safe and respected.

Everyone’s triggers are different, but your loved one’s triggers and reactionary behaviors will likely be consistent. Consider keeping track of the symptoms, when they occur and the circumstances leading up to your loved one’s challenging behavior.

Consider these examples:

Is your loved one pacing or rummaging because they are bored? Or is it because they are anxious? Each scenario requires you to respond in a specific way. For example, the former may be a relatively simple fix, while the latter may require some more investigation. Why are they anxious? Are they overstimulated? You may need to adjust the lighting or sound levels in the room. Are they worried that their mom or dad forgot to pick them up? Try validation or redirection therapy.

Is your mom or dad refusing to shower or get in the tub? They may find your assistance embarrassing or threatening, the room may be cold, they feel unsteady on their feet, or the water temperature is uncomfortable to their aging skin.

Are certain behaviors more common at a certain time of day? They could be symptoms of sundowning, which frequently occur around sunset but can manifest at any time of day when your loved one is most sensitive to light and other triggers.

Is your loved one aggressive and refusing to eat? Put yourself in their shoes. If, for example, someone insisted you eat a dish seasoned with cilantro for dinner, would you shake your head and tightly clamp your mouth closed to be difficult? Or would you do those things because to you, cilantro tastes like soap, and there's no other way to express your strong aversion to that particular meal? Or do you love cilantro but are too embarrassed to eat because your declining motor skills make it difficult to feed yourself with dignity? Of course, there are many other reasons your loved one might refuse to eat as dementia progresses.
READ MORE: When Loved Ones With Dementia Refuse To Eat


9 Tips for Talking Back

  1. Make sure when you are communicating with your loved one that you are in a quiet place with good lighting and not too many distractions.
  2. Speak clearly and calmly. Use short sentences and simple language when communicating with your loved one. Choose topics they would enjoy talking about.
  3. Keep your communications conversational and avoid asking too many questions. They may feel you are interrogating them and, if they don’t give the “right” answer, may feel embarrassed or like they are disappointing you.
  4. Be respectful when speaking to your loved one. Speak directly to them and not to someone else as if they are not in the room. If others are present, make sure you keep your loved one in the conversation. It can do wonders for their sense of self value.
  5. If your loved one is seated, sit next to them or crouch down to their level rather than towering above them, which could be perceived as threatening. Being on the same physical level can also deepen connections of mutual respect.
  6. Keep your body language positive and relaxed to help alleviate potential distress and keep communications positive. Positive body language can also help you maintain a conversational tone of voice.
  7. Validate your loved one’s feelings, frustrations, aches, pains and fears – both real and imagined. Remember that what your loved one is feeling and experiencing in their world is very real to them; they need to know you won’t dismiss their concerns and that they can trust you with their vulnerabilities.
  8. Practice good listening skills. Focusing on your loved one and what they are trying to tell you will allow the message to come through more easily, and your patience and undivided attention can help put them at ease, reducing frustration and facilitating more effective message delivery on their end.
  9. Use humor if that’s something your loved one will appreciate. Perhaps, if they can’t remember a word for something and you guess it correctly, you can offer a (non-threatening) high-five and a grin as a way to show you’re in this together and avoid possible embarrassment.

The compassionate Memory Care professionals at YourLife™ of Stuart speak our residents’ language. Call us today for more tips on how to effectively communicate with your loved one with memory loss. 772-212-2448


Designed for You. Defined by You.
YourLife™ of Stuart was created with one purpose – to provide the most exceptional Memory Care and uplifting lifestyle for our residents. As Memory Care specialists, we focus all our energy, attention and resources on creating a community that caters to each resident’s personal needs, respects their choices and honors individuality while providing unmatched peace of mind and support for families.

Because Memory Care is our sole focus, we have the unique ability to design and personally tailor plans around our residents. We see each resident as an individual, understanding that everyone has their own story, specific needs and retained abilities. With that information, we develop personally inspired care plans that value and support each person’s independence.

Our team of attentive, caring YourLife™ Personal Care Specialists is on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist with everyday activities, gentle reminders and redirection.

Through our signature programming, YourStory, we create an individual experience centered around each resident. From cultural, educational and health and wellness programming, scheduled outings and other special events to personal care, assistance and multiple therapies, we create days with meaning. At YourLife™ of Stuart, our residents and families know that this is a community designed for you, with a lifestyle defined by you. Contact us to learn more! Call 772-212-2448.