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What is dementia?

The term “dementia” doesn’t refer to one specific disease, instead, it’s an overall term for the set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain.  There are many causes of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia and while these conditions can have similar and overlapping symptoms, they all affect the brain a little differently. While most people living with dementia are over the age of 65, there are people living with dementia in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Dementia causes more than just memory loss.  Symptoms include, memory loss, both short and long term, difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language that are severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks, and changes in mood and behaviour.  Due to these reasons, a first responder might become engaged with a person living with dementia.

To learn more about dementia, check out the online learning or go to the Alzheimer Society website.

How does dementia affect communication?

Dementia affects how people express themselves and understand what is being communicated to them. For the person with dementia, maintaining relationships can be a complex process, especially when verbal communication is affected.

The following changes are common:

  • Difficulty finding a word
  • Creating new words for ones that are forgotten
  • Repeating a word or phrase (perseveration)
  • Difficulty organizing words into logical sentences
  • Cursing or using other offensive language
  • Reverting to the language that was first learned
  • Talking less than usual

You may find that the person with dementia has good days and bad days—this can depend on the quality and amount of sleep, stress levels and other medical conditions.


Words to USE

  • Person with dementia / living with dementia
  • Expressions (i.e. explain how the person is expressing themselves, the actions they are taking)
  • Explain what is happening in the situation instead of labelling as “aggressive”

Words to AVOID

  • Demented
  • Acting out
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Agitated
  • Challenging behaviour
  • Difficult / Problem behaviour
  • Hoarder / Hoarding
  • Violent
  • Sundowning / Sundowner / Wandering / Wanderer
As people living with dementia go about their day-to-day lives, they may:
  • Face challenges providing the documents you need
  • Have trouble navigating
  • Experience difficulty focusing or become overwhelmed in crowded or noisy places
  • Have trouble communicating if they cannot remember certain words


Communication Tips

  • Support the person’s reality
  • Introduce yourself, don’t assume that they will understand who you are
  • Speak clearly and slowly, allow the person additional time to process what you are saying—it can take a person living with dementia seven times longer to process information
  • Use short, simple sentences; avoid asking open-ended questions. Instead try to provide the person with choices (e.g. Would you like the _____ or the _____?)
  • Consider removing your hat or sunglasses
  • Be patient
  • Reduce distractions
  • Listen – give the person your undivided attention
  • Be aware of your non-verbal messages (facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, eye contact)
  • If possible, include them in the discussions with family when they return home
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