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5 ways to communicate with dementia patients

A recent episode of Emmerdale shone light on how difficult it can be to communicate with dementia patients if you do not have sufficient knowledge of the condition.

This episode generated much discussion on social media and in living rooms across the country.

Here, we’ll look at what the Emmerdale writers got right and provide five straightforward methods that can help make talking to people with dementia more rewarding for both parties.

What did Emmerdale get right about dementia?

For well over a year, Emmerdale writers have consulted with Alzheimer’s Society regarding the broadcast of a special episode intended to raise awareness and challenge misconceptions about dementia. 

Long-standing character Ashley Thomas was diagnosed with vascular dementia — a condition that affects 150,000 people in the UK — in November 2015, and his condition has since deteriorated. The episode charts Ashley’s journey and efforts to adapt to a world where he feels increasingly alienated.

These are some of the plot devices that Emmerdale writers used to reflect the confusion and unfamiliarity often experienced with dementia:

  • Fragmented plotline with Ashley appearing in new places and different clothes regularly without knowing how he got there.
  • Ashley’s friends and family were swapped with other actors, only appearing as themselves in brief flashes.
  • Kind, reassuring words from familiar faces made Ashley agitated as he didn’t recognise the people speaking.
  • The episode was filmed in Esholt (where Emmerdale was last filmed over 20 years ago), reflecting Ashley’s grasp of long-term but not short-term memory. 

Shortly after broadcast, Kathryn Smith, Director of Operations at Alzheimer’s Society, commented: “We believe Ashley’s storyline is the closest a drama of this kind has come to presenting the reality of what it might be like to live with the condition.”

5 ways to communicate with dementia patients

This episode spelt out how difficult it can be to communicate with dementia patients if you aren’t familiar with the condition.

But, there are things you can do to improve communications that will make a real difference to a dementia patient’s life. These are five key principles to help you communicate with people with dementia:

  • Don’t ask direct questions: Being unable to recall factual information can be distressing.
  • Give them space to talk: Allow them to guide the conversation. Stop talking when they start, and avoid interrupting them.
  • Avoid contradicting them: Even when they say things that are inaccurate, don’t tell them they’re wrong as this is at odds with their world view.
  • Choose an appropriate time: People with dementia go through highs and lows. Make sure you match your approach to their mood.
  • Focus on the emotional aspect: People with dementia still process emotions. Focus on making it a pleasurable experience, rather than focusing on a specific topic. 

These points all comprise aspects of ‘The SPECAL Method’, which has been developed specifically to improve quality of life for people with dementia.

If you would like to learn more about how to support a loved one with dementia, call on our friendly team today.