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Dementia and the Telephone

by Sue

How can we more successfully talk on the phone with someone who has dementia? We baby boomers are a very mobile generation. Not many of us live in the same city or town we grew up in, so many of us are trying to stay in touch with aging parents who live far away. We can’t just drop by to see how they are doing.

For many families, the primary means of contact is still the telephone, because using Skype and Facetime requires learning new skills. But when a parent is experiencing dementia, or even mild cognitive impairment, having a good phone conversation becomes difficult. So how can we have positive phone experiences with someone who has dementia?

Of course, we expect that, due to memory loss, people who have dementia will have trouble recalling what they did earlier in the day, let alone what’s been happening during the past week. And, we know that how much they can remember will diminish as time goes on. At first, you may find that it helps to ask leading questions by including a fact or two (i.e. “Dad, did you have coffee with your friend George this morning?”). In the earlier stages of dementia, memories sometimes become available when we prompt with a few facts.

Focus on communicating your love

However, not only do we need to keep in mind that the ability to use recall will fade away, we also need to keep in mind that people experiencing dementia sometimes recall dreamed events as being real, because they become unable to distinguish between dreams and reality. We should not assume they are purposefully misleading us. Rather than focusing on what’s true or factual, it’s better to spend our time on the phone communicating our love and desire to spend time with them. We shouldn’t expect verifiable facts from someone who’s losing memory and rational thought. What someone with dementia says has happened is possibly true, but not necessarily true.

So don’t correct, or question the validity of what your loved one says. Focus on what matters: that you love them and enjoying talking with them.

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Pass along a positive mood

Treat a phone call as your chance to brighten your parent’s day. When he becomes unable to recall his own experiences, use your calls as a chance to tell him what you’ve been up to the past week. Recall and retell a favorite memory from your childhood or your times together that you know are happy times for him, too.

Use your phone call to sing songs with your mom, or her favorite hymns, or tell her stories of things she did for you that enriched your life. Your goal should be to give her the experience of having your full attention, and to communicate your caring by recalling happy times for her that she cannot recall on her own.

Prepare topics beforehand

Before you call, write down several incidents from your own week that you know your loved one would enjoy hearing. You’ll be able to stay on the phone longer, avoid awkward pauses, and truly communicate that you want to spend time with them. Every time they return to asking about the weather, or how you are, take that as your cue to share another anecdote. When someone with dementia makes a general comment about the weather or how nice it is to hear from you, he or she is trying to keep the conversation going without the aid of memory—not communicating a lack of interest.

Most importantly, remember that moods seem to last longer for people who have dementia than for those of us with healthy brains. If you take care of providing the stories and anecdotes for your conversation, your loved one will experience companionship and love—and not feel that they have failed at conversation. They will retain a sense of being loved that will last long after you hang up.

Dementia care at home with less stress and less anxiety is possible... the DAWN Method - Strength-Based Dementia Care for Families

How to talk to someone with dementia on the phone—A quick guide

  1. Most importantly, communicate your love.
    You do this just with the tone of your voice and by continuing to talk.
  2. Resist the impulse to correct them.
    If they tell you something that you know is untrue, it is not helpful to correct them. If you do, you may embarrass them and they won’t feel safe talking to you. If it is something unpleasant, try changing the subject.
  3. Tell them stories.
    Begin with happy stories from your week. Tell them other funny stories that might interest them. Tell stories from their past that you know they enjoy.
  4. Make a list of topics beforehand.
    It can help to make a list of topics beforehand so that you don’t run out of things to say.
  5. Asking about the weather is a cue that they want to keep talking.
    If they ask about the weather or how your day was, this is a cue that they are enjoying talking, but don’t know what to say. Keep the conversation going by providing the stories.
  6. Bring a good mood.
    Try to communicate a good mood because people experiencing dementia absorb the moods of others around them. They have lost the ability to manage their own moods so a bad mood will follow them long after they’ve forgotten why they feel bad. For this reason, try to end the conversation on a happy or funny topic.
We believe families can provide excellent dementia care at home. The DAWN Method - Strength-Based Dementia Care for Families

FAQs about dementia and the phone

How do you talk to someone with dementia on the phone?

The most important thing think to do when talking to someone with dementia on the phone is to communicate your love. You do this just with the tone of your voice and by continuing to talk. If they ask about the weather or how your day was, this is a cue that they are enjoying talking, but don’t know what to say. Tell them happy stories about your life. Also tell them funny stories that you remember from times in the past spent with them. Resist the impulse to correct them. It can help to make a list of topics beforehand so that you don’t run out of things to say. Last but not least, communicate a good mood because people experiencing dementia absorb the moods of others around them and are often unable to shake a bad mood on their own.

What should/can I do when a person with dementia is calling constantly?

Someone who’s experiencing dementia or Alzheimer’s is losing their rational thinking skills and memory skills, and experiencing changes to their attention skills. Even if the person is not able to recognize what’s happening to their cognitive skills, deep down they’re feeling less secure—because they are. If they’re living alone, or you are their primary emotional support, they are likely to begin calling you many times a day as their self confidence wanes.

To help them stop, you’ll need to address their fading sense of security. In the short term, at first, you’ll find that if you’re always happy to chat for a minute or two (i.e. available and not bothered by the call or their neediness), then they might be able to internalize your ‘presence’ and not call as often. However, the need for someone to help them get through the day will be increasing, which will take careful planning. At DAWN, we teach families how to help a loved one who’s becoming clingy feel safe again despite their increasing confusion and need for others to take care of them.

(This article was originally published in 2016; latest revision: February 22, 2021.)

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Books by Judy Cornish: Dementia with Dignity: Living Well with Alzheimer's and Dementia Using the DAWN Method, and The Dementia Handbook: How to Provide Dementia Care at Home

Who is Judy Cornish?

Judy Cornish

Judy Cornish is a former eldercare lawyer and the former owner of Palouse Dementia Care, a dementia care agency that provides in-home dementia care to seniors in northern Idaho. She is the author of Dementia With Dignity and The Dementia Handbook as well as the creator of the DAWN Method of dementia care. Judy believes that with a little training, families can provide excellent dementia care at home with less stress and more companionship.

Is there a better way to navigate dementia?

The odds are against you if you rely on your gut. Working with people who are experiencing dementia requires a new way of interacting. Family members and caregivers (even incredibly empathetic ones) who don’t truly understand this will inadvertently embarrass, frustrate or undermine their loved ones and clients. Learn why that is and how to navigate dementia more successfully in our DAWN Method courses and books.

Are you a professional caregiver or organization?